Chapter 1: Like a slice of invisible pie
SHIELD was extraordinary in a lot of ways, but in the small things it was just like other workplaces. They had casual Fridays, flights of pointless memos, and the occasional departmental potluck. Phil had been outside of his home town long enough to have confronted the visceral reality that he had not grown up in the quintessential American upbringing.
Phil was working with the Southeast Asia section of intelligence gathering (which was only made moderately difficult with the entire division's refusal to send him reports on either the Kingdom of Ogibawinad or Xiarsfaw IV) when the chief declared one such potluck. The chief was very definitely a person; everyone knew his face, his name, and the sound of his voice. If you greeted him in the hall he would respond in kind. It was all a change for Phil. The chief asked that everyone bring a dish from their home state, province, or country as a teambuilding exercise. Phil debated what he should bring for a few days before deciding.
He’d soaked and stewed the peyote cactus just as his mother had, carefully extracting the mescaline-containing sludge and mixing it with eggs, corn syrup, and some lemon zest for that special zip. The corn cookie crust tasted right, but the cornmeal he got from the store didn’t crumble perfectly like the stuff they used to get made from imaginary corn. He poured the egg-cactus batter into the crust and baked it. It hadn’t looked right, (he could see it, after all) but the smell was familiar and comforting.
The potluck was full of dishes he didn’t recognize, partially because of his small town upbringing, and partially because of the multi ethnic origins of his department.
“What did you bring?” Sitwell asked, jostling Phil’s shoulder. Sitwell was the closest thing to a friend Phil could claim amongst his co-workers. They had been recruited around the same time and gone through the training course together. Sitwell was oddly trusting, and often disobeyed rules that had Phil both perplexed, and terrified, but they got on well enough.
“Invisible pie.” Phil nodded his head towards his pie, which had taken on a rather greyish hue while it chilled overnight. “I couldn’t get any imaginary corn or corn products this far east, so it’s not...” He trailed off at Sitwell’s perplexed look. “It’s a family recipe.” He’d always preferred his mother’s version of the confection to the Moonlight Diner’s. He suspected it was because they cut their Peyote cactus with San Pedro.
“Is it good?” Sitwell asked doubtfully.
“I haven’t tried it yet,” Phil replied with a shrug. He cut his pie and served up two slices; one to himself, one for Jasper.
“Is it supposed to be this color?” Sitwell asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never made a visible invisible pie.”
Sitwell took a bite, chewed once, and made the most horrified face Phil had ever seen on his friend. He managed to swallow it, but Phil could see the thought of spitting it out crossed Sitwell’s mind.
“Oh my god that is terrible. What the fuck is in this?” Jasper blinked a few times. “Was that drugged?”
Phil frowned and tried a bite of his pie. The texture of the crust was nice, if different. The filling was smooth and not fibrous at all, with a familiar powerful sweetness, bitter aftertaste, and a mescalin tingle. “It tastes fine to me,” Phil replied, still privately disgruntled that he could see it. The grey tinge was downright unappetizing.
“I repeat, what the fuck is in this? It’s like a chess pie had a crack baby with satan. This is a crime against pie.” Sitwell threw the plate, fork, and pie in the garbage with more force than was necessary. “You made that? Why would you make that? And I repeat once more, what the fuck was in that?”
“You must be tasting the peyote cactus. It’s not everyone’s thing, but I like—”
“There’s peyote in there?” Phil and Sitwell had drawn a bit of attention at this point, and Phil was feeling put upon.
“No, it’s a peyote cactus reduction that concentrates the mescalin,” Phil replied patiently. “Then you soak it in tears purified by a bloodstone chant to get most of the bitterness out.”
Sitwell looked sidelong at Phil but eventually decided he must be joking, laughing un-enthusiastically. He scooted towards a pair from Texas and Tennessee who were arguing about what constituted a proper barbecue.
A hiss from behind Phil drew his attention. It was a familiar sort of hiss; the sort of hiss that a radio gave off before it found a proper signal. It was a hiss similar enough to that used by his Eternal Scout troop leader that it set off a visceral reaction in him. He utterly, completely ignored it. “Is that visible, invisible pie?” the hisser asked in a growly undertone which utterly failed at being inconspicuous but were entirely successful in not being noticed by any of the other potluck attendees.
“I don’t think anybody I know would put money under the Sweet n Low for it,” Phil whispered into his pie plate, still not turning, a childhood of training in full effect.
The person he was pretending wasn’t behind him chuckled and put a friendly hand on his shoulder.
“Relax, scout.” The man spun him around, and it was the chief. Phil hadn’t been out of Night Vale for long enough that being addressed as ‘scout’ made him feel condescended. He had, only a bit over a year before, graduated out of the Eternal Scouts and gone to seek his fortune at the Job Fair.
The chief, whose name was Ramos, was neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin, and had wild, alert eyes. He was easily twenty years older than Phil though probably closer to thirty. His hair was curly and grey, and he wore his suit with the ease of long practice at being completely innocuous.
Phil looked him up and down without appearing to (as he had learned when he earned his Covert Assessment badge in Junior year of high school) and made a series of complex but subtle gestures with his ears and the fingers of his left hand, designed to ferret out interlopers within the ranks of the Scouts.
Ramos returned the proper call signs and Phil felt something within himself ease; the deadly injection tip installed in his thumb to deal swiftly with scout moles, to be precise. Ramos looked him up and down without even trying to appear he was not. “You look fresh off the black helicopter,” Ramos told him with a smirk.
“Yes sir. Eighteen months since the Job Fair, eight months since I completed training.”
“Well then, you’re still shaking sand out of your boots. Get me a slice of that pie and lets talk baseball. I heard the Sunbeams had changed management again.”
Which was exactly how Phil discovered that most of the people who took the Job Fair out of town ended up in agencies like SHIELD, or dead, within about twelve months. The deaths were largely suicide, with a distinct subset from unplanned, flying-reptile-related, hepatic removals.
Ramos pulled over one of Phil’s coworkers, Jeanine, who was coming off of disability after losing (and regrowing) several fingers, much to the consternation of SHIELD doctors. “You know how it is. After you’ve regrown a foot, a few fingers is a piece of cake.” Between the three of them they ate two thirds of Phil’s pie, declared it ‘perfectly acceptable’ and basked in the glow of mescaline-induced hallucinations for the remainder of the day.
“My mom used to take me to the Moonlight Diner after I went to the dentist, and we’d share a slice of invisible pie. I thought it was awful when I was a little kid, but the colors in my room were always so quiet afterwards, it was worth it.” Jeanine smiled fondly at the memory.
Ramos nodded with his own reminiscent smile. “The levitating mac n cheese was always my favorite. It just doesn’t float like it should when I make it here. I think something is different with the iron filings.”
Ramos and Jeanine had left Nightvale thirty-two and twelve years prior, respectively. Jeanine, it turned out, had spied on his father during an extended internship with the Secret Police. “He’d go out to the desert every day in his suit and oversee moving boxes from one truck to the other,” she said, “Right?”
“That was dad.”
“He always looked like a different man but I knew he was Mr. Coulson. What happened to him?” It wasn’t a question that had a happy answer; the way she asked, she knew that.
“Toxic event at the petting zoo. He would have gotten to the gas masks in time but there were some librarians loose at the same time. They were never sure which killed him. I’m not sure they looked.”
“Librarians,” Ramos growled, as though he was planning on hunting some down as punishment.
Jeanine rolled her eyes as though she was tired of hearing what was to follow. “Look, Phil, I know it can be strange adjusting to the humidity and,” she waved her hands at the air indicating very simply, everything. “But if you’d like, we get together some Fridays to chant around the Bloodstone ring in Juliard’s quarters. I’m fairly certain the rest of the unit think we’re Jewish.” She shrugged. “You’d be welcome if you ever want to join in. And I can show you how to pick up Cecil’s broadcast on your city council issued tracking filling, if you would like news.”
Phil had already figured out how to pick up the radio broadcasts with his fake tooth, but he appreciated the sentiment behind her offer. “Thank you,” he replied, “that would be very nice.”
Chapter 2: Blood and Sand
This chapter goes to St. Louis Geek Girl, whose shout of near-coital accolade convinced me that this chapter should be first on my in progress to-dones. Thanks to everyone who's commented thus far and I do hope you enjoy.
When Phil had left home, his possessions were meager. Things which you were allowed to take out via black helicopter were severely regulated, and he didn’t have all that much that the subtly menacing government organization he’d gotten a position with would not provide. His satchel had included a few photos, a little recipe book, hand written by his mother, and his father’s set of bloodstones. The stones were what technically defined something as a bloodstone circle, but ultimately it was emotional resonance with those stones that gave circles power, and Phil had always resonated strongly with those stones.
Technically, bloodstones were on the prohibited for export list, but Phil had been sure to stant directly after another recruit who, he was certain, was trying to smuggle a pair of his tentacled pets with him, and thus would preoccupy the screeners and give Phil an easy pass with only a cursory inspection. The stones remained in his locker, and later, when he rose far enough for a desk, his locked desk drawer. When he graduated to his own small office, they resided in his desk hutch, having acquired a sandalwood box carved with runes at some point, which dampened their sometimes distracting resonance.
He listened to Cecil a lot. He listened when times were hard and he felt lonely. He listened when he felt like he didn’t understand the world he existed in. He listened when he was bored on ops, and when he was being tortured and needed something to distract him. The bloodstones, though, came out only when he had run through every other option in his life. They were a reminder of the big things that lurked just beyond his perception that were so wildly, incomprehensibly outside his control. They were a prayer in the dark against enemies he could not see. They were a shout into the great abyss, in the faint hope that the abyss would whisper back, yessss.
Barton had been gone for five days. Natasha had been missing for two. Stark and Rogers were on the verge of simply tearing the roofs off of building like they were cans of beans to see if their wayward teammates were housed therein. Phil had exhausted every resource including his impressive internal reserves, trying to find them, to no avail. He was out of plays. He was out of options. The void had looked upon him, and as the all-encompassing, uncaring entity it was, had shrugged and traveled on, unmoved by his distress.
His hands shook as he pulled down the sandalwood box and flipped open the lid. The inside of the box smelled of cigars and chocolate and decaying melamine. The stones glowed in welcome. He set them in the proper order in a circle in the center of his office floor, knelt, and began to chant.
He started with a good German chant — one of those chants that had been drilled into him since grade school. He moved on to Latin, hyper-Latin, and triple-Spanish. He got into the groove around Estonian, and continued through the ones he remembered, eventually going back to hyper-Latin as an old standby. He felt the power of his supplication flow into the stone ring, felt the riotous cyclone of energy it housed, and felt the pinprick of narrowed focus that that energy drained towards. Find them, bring them back pounded through his head like blood and rain and the radio-wave heartbeat of the universe.
His door opened without any warning, but this wasn’t Phil’s first all-night chant. He wound down his chant, currently in a pacific island dialect, before looking up. Bruce Banner was staring at him, mouth hanging open just a bit. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have— I just was— I heard voices, and—” he stared at Phil a bit more.
Phil bowed his head, willing the whirlpool of energies down their tiny drain of hope, and sat back on his heels. He probably was a sight; hair disheveled, shirtsleeves rolled up and tie removed. His socked feet were cramping terribly as he tried to work some feeling back into them.
“What was that you were doing? Is this some kind of religious thing?”
Phil bent forward, stretching his lumbar, and swung his arms up and back stretching his chest and shoulders. “I guess you could say that,” Phil replied. “It’s just... It’s something we used to do at night when there was nothing else to do but you couldn’t stop wishing there was something to do to change the outcome of events beyond your control.”
“Oh,” Bruce replied, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “No news on Widow or Hawkeye then?” Phil shook his head heavily. “Huh,” Bruce replied. Glancing at the bloodstone ring he asked, “How does it work?”
“Hmm?” Phil murmured, caught off guard. He’d never had to explain how a bloodstone ring worked — nobody who wasn’t of Night Vale had ever stumbled upon him during its use. Which brought to mind the question, “Why are you here so late? Early?” Phil corrected quickly.
“I was just going to bed, actually. It’s only 3AM or so. I heard voices and thought you might still be up, or had gotten some news.” Bruce shrugged sheepishly. “I should have knocked. If I’d known you were in the middle of something...”
“No, I—” Phil rolled his head to crack his neck and winced. “It’s not a good idea to do a full night chant if you’re as out of practice as I am.”
“Oh—kay,” Bruce said, drawing the word out to express his complete lack of understanding. “You said you did this when you couldn’t sleep? What do you do?”
“Why don’t you join me? I’ll show you how it’s done.” Phil wouldn’t have made the offer to any of the other Avengers. He knew Natasha knew about the bloodstones because she was snoopy and had gone through his things a few months after signing on with SHIELD. He knew Clint knew but didn’t care, because Natasha was a gossip underneath her tight lipped exterior, and Clint was allergic to anything even hinting at religion. Normally, nobody outside of others from his home town would be interested. Bruce seemed to revel in cultural exchange; the offer would not be favored lightly by the scientist.
Bruce cleaned his glasses, considering the stones. “Sure.”
On Phil’s direction, Bruce knelt across from Phil and set his hands on the nearest stones. They went through some of the most basic chants Phil knew, Bruce repeating after until they got a properly asynchronous, atonal rhythm going. The energy that flowed from Bruce into their little maelstrom was Hulk-green and the brown of deep forest loam. It mingled with Phil’s soft blue-grey and swirled into a surprisingly harmonious cyclone.
Once you started, chanting just kind of took most people. Between all the training at keeping the Hulk at bay and an undergraduate career which included more than a little self-hypnosis in an attempt to reach an on-demand psychedelic state, Bruce took to it like a kangaroo to the desert. The coppery taste of blood was strong in Phil’s mouth, the mineral and electricity smell of a sandstorm building in his nostrils by the time they wound down, together. Bruce let out a pent up breath, slumping forward. “Wow,” he said simply, pressing his hands into the floor, and scooting his hips back until he rested in child’s pose. Phil shepherded the last traces of energy to their proper work, and scooted back himself.
“Yeah.” Phil hadn’t done that with anybody else in a long time — since Ramos retired and Juliard skipped off for an easy job with the NSA, in fact. He certainly hadn’t done it with something so deeply personal on the line. “That was...”
“Good,” Bruce finished. “I got a kinda weird taste in my mouth towards the end there. Kinda like—”
“I didn’t want to say...” Bruce replied, nose still pressed to the floor presumably so he didn’t have to look Phil in the eye. They both were familiar with the taste of blood. For Bruce it brought only the flash of memory of the Hulk crunching through the skull of enemy or prey. For Phil it brought remembrances of long chants with his mother, his brothers and sisters when they had still lived, and a few of their shades, after they had died. It brought to mind the rich, metal and life-force taste as he conducted the rites to become an Eternal Scout. It was a sensation that brought up conflicted feelings of fear, joy, belonging, and fear.
“That’s pretty normal. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you.”
Bruce shrugged laconically, rising from his sprawl. “You feeling better?” Bruce asked.
Phil nodded, and began placing the stones back in their box. The melamine smell was particularly strong today; his mother was thinking of him. He rose and picked up his tie, slung his suit jacket over a shoulder, and nodded towards the door. “We both need some sleep if we’re going to think straight tomorrow.”
Bruce nodded agreement and proceeded Phil out of the room. “You know, if you ever need a second, I’m happy to help out however I can,” Bruce offered.
Phil ducked his head and allowed himself a tiny smile. “Thank you. Really.”
If ‘a swirling vortex of void energy far beyond the comprehension of mortals powered by the force of pure rage and directed with laser-like precision by the souls of the damned’ was instrumental in distracting Natasha’s captors sufficiently for her to disable them, and then toss them into said void on the way to rescuing Clint and escaping via hovercraft, nobody mentioned it on official reports.
Chapter 3: Honey Bun
SHIELD was above and beyond a lot of the rest of comparable governmental agencies in tech, largely due to a creepily close relation to Stark Industries, but there were some assignments that required old school methodology and old school tech. For those assignments, junior agents were dispatched. There was an unofficial point system whereby a junior agent earned their ‘double 00’s and part of that required sitting enough shit shifts in surveillance vans and collaring enough low-level scumbags.
Sitwell and Phil had long passed the stage of boredom where playing card games did any good. Sitwell was sure Phil was cheating at blind man’s bluff anyway; it wasn’t Phil’s fault that Sitwell had apparently slept through his ESP licensing test in high school. Phil was considering whether he would try hand-washing his newest dress shirt, or if he should finally make a serious attempt at finding a regular dry cleaner who wouldn’t sneeze (or scream) at removing either ectoplasm or human blood stains. Sitwell, knowing Sitwell, was probably considering what sort of pie to bake that weekend.
They sat back to back, headphones slightly askew on their heads waiting, watching, and hoping that something would happen.
“You got any brothers and sisters, Phil?” Sitwell asked, quite out of the blue. Apparently he had not been considering pie. Or perhaps the pie consideration ran to thoughts of family as the two concepts were intimately connected, albeit in different ways, for each of them.
Phil tried to reign in his musings about ectoplasm removal and reorder his thoughts to answer the question. “Uh...” he managed, sitting completely upright and stretching. They really needed another caffeine run but they needed to avoid drawing any attention to their fake utility truck as well. “Excuse me?” he tried, hoping to buy himself time.
“You got any brothers or sisters?” Sitwell asked again, enunciating a bit more than necessary so Phil knew he knew he was stalling.
“Yeah,” Phil replied, cagily.
“So which is it?” Sitwell asked, turning to face Phil’s back.
“Hmm?” Phil made an inquisitive noise to match his mildly interested quizzical look.
“Come on, Coulson. We’ve known each other for how long?”
“Two years, eight months,” Phil responded promptly. He’d left home in early August and met Sitwell in training in late August.
“Exactly. And I know like, nothing about you. We’ve been stationed together on, like—”
“Twenty two,” Phil supplied knowing that Sitwell was fishing for the number of operations they’d run together. “Eighteen successful,” he added.
“Exactly. You fucking finish my sentences, and I know jack and shit about you beyond your range scores and how long you can hold your breath.” Sitwell sounded frustrated.
“Those things are pretty important for a partner to know,” Phil replied reasonably. “You know how I like my diner breakfasts. You know where I live and what sort of undershirt I favor,” he added. Those seemed like important things for friends to know, and he wanted Sitwell to understand that they were friends.
“You can be fucking weird sometimes, man,” Sitwell replied, shaking his balding head. Phil smirked to himself, secret and quiet but not denying that fact. “It’s just one little thing. It’s not going to kill you to tell me one little thing about your life, is it? I will totally trade you.”
Phil turned and evaluated Sitwell’s state of mind in a single glance. SHIELD was a lot like the cozy desert hamlet he had grown up in. Everyone knew everyone else, everyone kept their neighbor’s secrets, and everyone, above all else, was in it together.
That said, in the cozy desert hamlet he had grown up in, everyone had understood, or at least pretended to understand the ground rules. A person could bring up their family, but you never brought up their family for them. Sitwell didn’t know that — didn’t understand the deeply unsettled feeling that rose up from a place beneath the pit of his stomach whenever people did that to Phil. It had earned Phil a reputation for being prickly, secretive, and highly professional. It was a reputation shared amongst those simply grouped as ‘from the Desert Sands Recruitment Facility’ and it was a reputation which was steadfastly Not Messed With.
Sitwell was leaning back in his tiny, uncomfortable swivel chair with a look of revelation on his face, as though something had been made clear in the silent moments just shared between them. “Fair. Look, I didn’t mean to pry if it’s difficult personal shit. I just wanted to—”
“I had six brothers and six sisters,” Phil replied, cutting off his partner. The words spilled out in a disordered rush as though thinking about them too much would cause them to get clogged in his mouth.
Sitwells eyebrows rose in surprised disbelief. His perception skills were not sub-par, though, so he didn’t disbelieve Phil’s sincere delivery. “Shit,” he said. “Shit,” he repeated. “Your family reunions must be off the wall.” Sitwell chewed Phil’s statement over for a moment and seemed to come to a secondary conclusion. “Wait, had? What happened?”
“I was lucky number thirteen,” Phil replied simply. “The others... weren’t.” He didn’t want to talk about it, not really. He could only remember spending time with one of his older brothers, and he had vivid memories of three of his older sisters. He had shady, honey-gold memories of sitting around the family-sized bloodstone circle with other cheerful, chanting children who he assumed were his siblings. He had a few bright flashes of memory, like sunstroke and a flash bang rolled together, of playing on a swingset in a park with browned grass and sandblasted equipment. He remembered bracing himself in a huge truck tire while two someones, older and stronger and so incomprehensibly larger than he rolled him through the tundra and he shrieked in childish pleasure.
“What?” Sitwell asked, looking horrified. “What— are you serious? Christ on a cracker Phil, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried.”
“No, you probably shouldn’t have,” Phil agreed. The place beneath the pit in his stomach was a roiling tumult of emotion and poorly recalled memory.
“They all— was it an accident?” Sitwell asked. His expression was hurt at Phil’s agreement; that had probably not been the socially appropriate response, but he seemed intent upon ferreting out what information he could from a perennially reluctant Phil.
“Some of them. Some of them were quite intentional, I’m sure,” Phil stated darkly. Phil was Philip J. Coulson the third, though the third part was often left off his HR forms. Juniors, thirds, or fourths were only granted to children if the original child that went by that name was killed or disappeared in a manner not attributable to accident or misadventure.
Philip the first had been his parents’ first child, and had been taken by the Sheriff's Secret Police when he was three for questioning regarding insurance fraud, and never returned. Philip junior had been selected for yearly sacrifice when he was five. Julian, Solomon, and Thomas had been carried off by raptors, been sucked into an acid cloud, and gotten a deadly flesh eating virus, respectively before Phil was two. Maria and Maria junior both fell victim to the summer reading programs, though at very different times (Maria was his mother’s second child, Maria Junior just one year older than Phil) and in very different ways. Lydia had fallen in with a gang of disreputable coyotes and turned up dead around her sixteenth birthday. Diana had been killed during a field trip to the zoo. And those were just the deaths Phil had not been present or involved with; Sarah and Sylvia’s deaths still gave him nightmares sometimes.
Sitwell was staring at him in honest open-mouthed shock.
“What about you? Any family?” Phil asked lightly, attempting to deflect the conversation back on his partner. The ploy did not work.
Sitwell raised a hand, pointer finger outstretched and at the ready. He shook his forefinger and began a few sentences which quickly got stuck in his throat. “Please tell me you’re fucking with me,” Sitwell managed finally.
Phil frowned. “Our family was particularly unfortunate. It’s common with twins, though. I guess my parents were braced for it.”
“I’m—” Sitwell continued to be at a loss for words. For his normally mouthy partner, that was unusual, and Phil turned a sympathetic eye towards him. “Jesus, that’s dark. I’m sorry, man.”
Phil nodded. He had been the only Coulson born without a twin, and the only one to survive to adulthood. High death rates were a sacrifice those in Night Vale made for excellent school systems, reasonable housing prices, devoted public servants, and a sewer system that never, ever, disgorged hoards of tarantulas like a hairy, poisonous, terrified black swarm bubbling up towards your genitals like hell itself had taken offense to your bowel movements. His mother had borne his siblings deaths philosophically until his father and Diana’s death. Then each loss had hit like a train at an unmarked crossing; sudden, and loud, and with immediate, rending consequences.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Sitwell offered.
“Not particularly,” Phil replied, trying to let the waves of emotions he did not often immerse himself in wash over and through him and leave behind a pure, griefless spirit, untouched by the sting of time and loss.
Sitwell had the grace to let that go, and they both sat silently, thinking to themselves.
The moments Phil had etched in his mind of Sylvia — always so much bigger, more mature, and ready to take on the world — was of her flying into the kitchen and slamming the door shut. She was laughing and her hair was sticky, and the tiny muffled thuds of a swarm of hyperbees hitting the front door and regrouping to attempt a rear-assault was like rain and distant gunfire. Her slightly gapped teeth were on full display with her grin, and a splash of freckles gave what would have been a terribly solemn face for a young girl, a carfree, debonaire look. The hyperbees had gotten to the back door and attempted entry. Failing that, they searched for the air intake systems for the home ventilation which had already been hyperbee-proofed.
“I got it,” she told him breathlessly, dropping a dripping basket on the kitchen table, and Phil had climbed on a chair, eager to see her spoils.
“Mom’s gonna—” Phil had begun.
“She’s gonna love it,” Sylvia had insisted. “She doesn’t have to know if we have a taste first, though.”
Sylvia reached into the oozing pile of honeycomb and broke off a piece twice the width of her finger. She passed the smaller half of it to Phil and picked a few squirming larvae out before biting happily into the waxen comb. Phil watched her to make sure hyperbees wouldn’t come pouring out of her mouth before hesitantly biting into his own comb. His teeth had gone through the wax easily, and his piece, too, was bee free.
The taste of desert honey hit him like a slap from life itself; smoky from mesquite flowers and almost salty with the taste of the scrub land he played in. It was sweet, yes, but so much more. The sweetness took a hold of his taste buds and poured itself down into the nerves they fed, lighting up centers in his sensory perception he had not known existed. His eyes glinted with the new found perception as they met his sister’s.
“Good, right?” Sylvia had asked.
Phil had nodded, mute, mouth still latched on the comb, sucking out the essence of life as the rattle of hyperbees lulled them with a regular tattoo.
“We got movement,” Sitwell said, breaking Phil from his reverie, the taste of honey still thick on his tongue.
Chapter 4: Cafe au fin du monde
Growing up in Night Vale, you learned not to ask questions, which was not to say you learned not to be curious. You simply learned to be very self-actualizing in your curiosity, and secretly inquisitive. The laws of physics, and of time itself, were not constant. This was not to say they didn’t operate by their own arcane rules and orders. Feeling the rhythm of the world around you was one of the first things that residents learned, either when they immigrated, or when they were born.
Phil was born to the mystery that was his small desert hamlet. As he learned to crawl, so too did he learn to navigate the sometimes non-linear currents of time, and the twisted paths of science and mysticism that characterized life. As he learned the rules of stickball in the pit out back the Ralph’s, so too did he learn the unspoken social mores that bound the community together and ensured not only peace, but universal cohesion in the face of incoherence and the resounding chaotic emptiness that closed in on their outskirts each and every day. As he learned to care for, aim, and shoot handguns and rifles during PE class in fifth grade, so too did he learn to tend the mental garden which was a space he alone could enter, and he alone could choose to leave, and to aim his laser-like mental focus on the occurrence of his desires to ensure they came to pass. Phil was a desert creature; a thought which only gained some irony years later when he was introduced to the Dune series by agent Sitwell.
Night Vale could not exist without its inhabitants, which was something that escaped most outsiders. The residents were the fuel, the structure, and the meat of everything that went wonderfully wrong and horribly right in that town. Those who had been called to Night Vale, or dropped off by a midnight Greyhound bus for a bathroom break never to be picked up again, or those who simply woke up one day in the scrub wastes with a splitting headache and the intense surety that they had left the oven on, were of a unique kith. Something within them was capable of seeing further, and deeper, and wider than their compatriots, and also within them was the will to look away when the time came to close their eyes and pretend to sleep.
Phil’s mother was Night Vale born. Phil’s father had been called, or taken, or transported in. He was from Outside, and Phil’s father never quite got over that inescapable otherness. When he was small, Phil’s father would tell him stories of life outside Night Vale. He would relate how people lived in communities unbound by shared nightmares, and without the feeling of belonging that came with chanting at night, and hearing your neighbors chant as well. He told them about politicians who were just regular people, no more prescient or capable or amazing than any other human. He told them about green spaces that stretched to the horizon and beyond: lush temples to fat wet gods that Phil and his siblings had never tasted.
It seemed safe, out in that green, fat world, but it also seemed empty. Where was the touch of the void? How did you reach out to your neighbors without the unifying force of a good old fashioned scream in the night? Phil had thought he was moving away from all that when he took the black helicopter out of town, but he just moved to a place they shared their nightmares in a more private way, and where the murmur of your neighbor’s chants were the rumble hum of shipboard engines, and the movement of maintenance crews in the night.
The ungarnished realities of Night Vale prepared him well for SHIELD. Blood didn’t phase him. Death didn’t scare him particularly. Violence, gore, and loss were parts of life. The unexpected was expected. Phil quickly earned a reputation as unshakeable, indefatigable, and just a little bit unhinged. If Phil had been less accessible — more closed off or less personable — they might have made up outlandish rumors about him. Phil can turn invisible. Phil can evade infrared scanners. Phil can spit something like acid, strong enough to eat through the hinges on cell doors. Phil can survive without water for five days or more. But they knew Phil. Phil was a regular guy. He wasn’t magic or a science experiment; he was just Phil.
The rare person knew different. Director Fury was not of Night Vale, but he was familiar in a sketchy, other sort of way with the fact that those who were of Night Vale could occasionally accomplish the impossible. Ramos, Jeanine, and Juliard, among a few others from his home town were of course aware of how the world really worked. But even so, there were things like the Boy Scouts, that he simply never mentioned in uninitiated company.
There were a lot of things Phil learned in the course of earning his rank of Eternal Scout. He learned that as far as the everyday inhabitants of Night Vale knew, there had never been a scout to achieve that rank. He learned that in fact close to thirty eight boys and girls had reached that rank, but due to their training they had been able to open up a null space where memories of them had existed in the consciousness of the town, and thus effectively become nonentities. He learned to walk the places within himself that others only rhapsodized poetry about. He learned how far he would go to stay alive, and what was beyond the directions of his internal compass. He learned what trust meant. He learned that sometimes the best thing you could do for family was let them go.
The things Phil had learned earning his Eternal Scout ranking kicked into gear in the last cold moments before he went into that eternal slumber of death, staring at Nick Fury, and wishing he had some privacy for his final moment. The wound through his chest burned like fire and ached like ice. Poisonous magics seeped from the wound into his blood. Even after decades away, the sandy dust of desert magic still flowed in his veins, and the meeting of sunbaked heat and hoarfrost made his innards boil.
The conflicting needs to just stop and to get out his last few words to Fury raged and buzzed through his brain as he forced out his sentence even as his body shut down. His heart stopped. His intact lung pulled in one last breath. His stomach and liver and all the parts that weren’t desperately hoping to keep him alive turned off their water heaters, and shut off the lights. And the parts of Phil that were not entirely Phil, went to work.
When the notice went out that Agent Coulson was down, he was lucky that Jeanine was stationed on the Helicarrier, and that she was uninjured enough to drop what she was doing and run at full tilt to where he was. The medics were about to move on from Phil — waxy, unmoving, dead-looking Phil.
“Wait!” Jeanine called, sliding to his side and cutting open his shirt in a way the medics hadn’t even bothered with.
“He’s gone,” the triage doctor told her sadly. “We have other people that need help. You need to have a mental breakdown somewhere else.”
“He’s not gone yet,” Jeanine stated in a steely tone. She waved down an EMT and felt around Phil’s abdomen and chest with light fingers.
“Ma’am—” the EMT said gently.
“You take him to the OR and you put him back together or so help me I will put holes in you leading to places you never conceived could exist,” Jeanine said in a deadly undertone. The triage doctor gave her a look as though she was considering testing her luck with tranq darts and restraints.
“There’s something...” the EMT who had placed her stethoscope on Phil’s chest, monitoring him for any signs of life looked ill. “This isn’t right,” she added.
The triage doctor rolled her eyes and thrust her stethoscope into her ears, planting it next to the gaping wound. Her eyes got wide and scared. “Get surgery prepped now. Is he... stable for transport?”
Jeanine shook her head slowly. “Get everything tacked back together and put a few pints in him, then we can talk.”
The triage doctor managed not to scream even a little when a few inky squid tentacles undulated their way out of Phil’s mouth, expanding and contracting like they were tasting the air.
With the aid of a few more inky but helpful tentacle creatures, the doctors got Phil’s chest tacked back together and repaired the minor damage to his pericardium. There would be scarring in his lung, a lot of physical therapy to get his chest muscles working properly again, and who knew what other recovery, but Phil was back in one piece. The operating doctors managed to ignore the fact that their patient appeared completely dead, had creatures of unknown origin helping to hold him together, and, once again, appeared completely dead.
“What now?” the triage doctor who Jeanine had originally hijacked asked. Jeanine had broken into Phil’s office and found his bloodstones with little trouble. They hummed and whined in their wooden box.
“We get everything going again,” Jeanine told them. “You’d best step out for a few minutes. I’ll call if we need you.”
The last thing the triage doctors saw was Jeanine latching her mouth over Phil’s, heedless of the questing, inky tentacles that rose to meet her tongue. She breathed into Phil’s lungs in a long exhale, his chest rising properly now that he was only moderately punctured. When she stepped away to arrange the bloodstones around his prone body, his chest fell, and then rose again, seeming to have remembered the trick of breathing. The stones murmured to each other and glowed as she placed the final one and returned to Phil’s side.
The ink blots were flowing through Phil, searching out the system restarts for his various organs. Jeanine could feel them gathering around his damaged heart, cradling the pericardium and gently wrapping his ventricles. Jeanine’s chant was superfluous, but it helped her focus as she directed Phil’s dark passengers to link together and restart the pumping of Phil’s heart.
The first beat was sluggish and poorly coordinated, oxygenated blood back flowing through flaccid valves, but the second beat was more on rhythm, and the third actually began the sluggish flow of blood through Phil’s cooling veins.
“DOCTOR,” Jeanine called, and a wide-eyed surgeon came running back in, dragging a nurse behind.
“Get him in a life support pod and get him on the first transport out.”
Jeanine was not an Eternal Scout but she was aware of what she had to do in situations such as these. She put a call through the SHIELD phone tree to mobilize all the immigrants in the ranks, and alert those who ‘got out’ that some major mojo was going to go down.
The call was rather scrambled, warped around the gravity well of an interdimensional space vortex forming in the atmosphere in central New York, but luckily Phil had been fixed enough that he could hold for a few days. The anonymous agent in a medical pod was shuttled with all the other personnel, injured and in distress, to various facilities across the mainland.
It took Jeanine and Juliard almost a week to find where Coulson had ended up, and it took two days after that to muster the expats for the necessary activities. The ceremony is not something that is spoken of, nor is it something that is remembered. It happened, it worked, and Coulson who had been so very dead and only miming the trappings of life, rose, eternal.
Which was not to say he was conscious, immediately.
Phil woke to the smell of chicory coffee and burned chicory coffee. He was lying in a pool of the stuff, tubed to high heaven, but not otherwise restrained. Phil’s dark passengers were making slow rounds in the caffeinated pool, replenishing themselves in the rich brown liquid with slow laps. They were on the verge of collapse, his little inkblots, and he silently reassured them they could rest.
Phil inhaled and exhaled, feeling the jagged, aching pain under his heart. His wound was taped over with gauze and watertight plastic so the coffee didn’t soak through his bandages, and the tape tugged at his skin. He took another breath.
“Hey. Do you know where you are?” Sitwell was sitting at the edge of his pool, a look of complete incredulity on his face. He looked like a gobsmacked egg.
Phil glanced around the room; taupe walls, tile floor, industrial blinds, medical monitoring equipment. “Loki?” Phil asked. His throat hurt.
“He was neutralized,” Sitwell told him with a smile. “What do you remember?”
Sitwell’s smile faltered a bit, and hung weakly. “Yeah.” He looked down at his thumbs, circling each other in a nervous gesture. “We thought you were dead. Pretty much everyone still thinks you’re dead.”
“Lucky for me,” Phil wheezed and had to stop. “People are wrong. A lot.” Phil finished.
“You’re gonna have to explain all this to me when you can finish your sentences without having a fit,” Sitwell told him.
Phil made a weak approximation at a complex hand gesture. “Outsider,” he hissed.
“Yeah, I’ve been getting that a lot lately.” Sitwell sighed. “Look Phil, this is all insane. And I want to know. But mostly I’m glad to have you back.”
Phil nodded, and relaxed against the back wall of his tub. The chicory was still warm. The smell was rich and nutty and just a shade off from coffee to tell him it was the real thing. The flavor was dark, faintly acidic and more than a little bitter, soaking through his skin. This stuff was sharp whereas the chicory he remembered from his childhood was mellowed with canned evaporated milk and the passage of what felt like lifetimes since he was curled in bed with his mother sitting next to him. Coffee was a palliative in the Coulson household, and its curative qualities were not restricted to the adults of the house. For colds and upset tummies, headaches, earaches, and every other malady he could remember, his mother would make up a french press and share out a mug for each of them. She’d sweeten his and drink hers straight and they’d sit on his bed, reading a book.
Phil sighed and let himself fall asleep, the warm caress of his dark passengers, swimming happy in the familiar brew, lulling him into genuine rest.
Chapter 5: A Mandatory Slice
How SHIELD formed its mutant policy task force and Phil learned the hazards of defending minority groups within the military industrial complex.
Phil sniffed hesitantly, and exchanged a look with Sitwell. “I’m fairly certain this is a trap,” Sitwell commented, following the scent of oregano, tomato, and cheese down the hall nonetheless.
“I can only concur,” Phil agreed. Agent Coulson and Agent Sitwell had gotten a bit of a reputation over the last few years in SHIELD. They closed their cases and they got results all while flying completely under the radar. They had earned a bit of a strut when they walked down HQ halls, and they both indulged occasionally. They were after all reasonably young, hale men, and prone to a bit of pride.
Coulson and Sitwell each headed a small unit (one analyst, one operator, and them) and both knew they were slated for more responsibility, bigger options, and more secrecy. They were eager for it. That said, unit head meetings were part of their duties; administrative mumbo jumbo that they were only after two years as unit heads getting the hang of. Phil had an uncanny knack for paperwork, but Sitwell was frankly bad at it. Non-linear thinking? He was great there. Creative operations methods? Also an ace. Never eliminating a possibility? That was something they were both familiar with.
Get togethers which included everyone of a certain group or classification still made Phil nervous. Phil still remembered vividly the massacre of all the HVAC repair people during their annual alcohol-fueled bacchanal at the Lion’s Club which had led directly to the great A/C blackout a month and a half later that left nearly everyone Phil knew with heat prostration of some degree of severity. Juliard had talked him out of his quarters for his first all-personnel meeting and he’d become more accustomed to them since then, but a tendril of unease still wiggled around in his middle when these sorts of things occurred.
The smell of a remarkably familiar brand of pizza sauce was not helping.
Sitwell’s stomach rumbled and Phil’s partner smirked, unashamed. “I kind of love lunch meetings,” he admitted.
Phil did not love lunch meetings. He cherished the quiet time alone in his cubicle with his sandwich and his bag of chips and his green or gala apple. In spite of that he returned Sitwell’s smirk.
Fury was standing at the head of the room like a commodore, surveying his besuited fleet of men and women in black, legs spread, eye drilling into each and every one of them. Phil glanced covertly, suspiciously, at Fury’s eye patch. He had tried to use his Sight to penetrate the scrap of leather just once. There was only a window to the void beneath the eye patch, so potent it had given him nightmares for weeks. He was understandably suspicious of Fury and his missing eye.
The projector screen was pulled down which meant a slideshow of some sort. Sitwell cast a sidelong glance at the pizza boxes stacked in untidy heaps on the side table. Phil had rigid internal policies about being the first one to try any food, developed over years of careful observation.
“Get your food and sit the hell down. I want to get this train wreck started,” Fury ordered to the agents trickling in. Ramos met Phil’s eyes and gave a nod of acknowledgement, gesturing with his head towards the pizza.
“Smells like I remember,” Ramos said. “Last stuff I got from them tasted the same too.”
Phil raised his eyebrows in surprise. Sitwell had already abandoned him in favor of cheesy sauced bread. “I haven’t had anything that even got close to Big Rico’s since—” Phil shrugged, indicating his harried flight out of town via black helicopter.
Ramos grinned, teeth white and just that side of too sharp to be entirely human. “I got some Szechuan peppercorns to give it the right tang. This place does good work.”
"Did you order it?" Phil asked. Ramos nodded and gave a hand gesture which indicated it was safe.
"Move it," Fury barked, glaring at Ramos and Phil. Sitwell was presiding over a pile of pizza at his chosen seat. Phil picked out a slice of pepperoni and one of vegetarian supreme, and sat at the closest available seat.
He studied the pepperoni slice for a moment before taking a bite. He burned the roof of his mouth and his tongue was hit with the almost electric tang of pink peppercorns. It was perfect. He closed his eyes to savor the greasy, starchy, tangy mix. The scent of oregano was present while the flavor was completely absent. The cheese was chewy and stringy without tasting strongly of anything. It was just as he remembered from his mandatory weekly slices.
When he opened his eyes the lights had been turned off while he had been off his guard and the first slide was up; a black and white copy of a newspaper article about the Mutant Menace. Fury had begun talking. "—jobs have been getting stranger than we even thought. With the rise of mutants as a special interest group in addition to a threat source we’ve got a lot of things that need to be considered in our policy statements."
The presentation continued for fifteen minutes, going over several recent incidents which had involved mutants either directly or indirectly. One of SHIELD science staff got up for a brief talk on how they suspected mutants came about. Phil shared a look of unease with Ramos and he put his plate aside, sitting forward in his seat. Fury stood up again bringing up a few photos of the mutant called Magneto and a compact, vicious looking man known only as 'the Wolverine'. Phrases like 'threat assessment' and 'risk profiles' began being tossed into the conference room.
Phil's hand rose without his conscious command. Fury's eye focused on him, eyebrow raised sardonically, goatee pulled to the side with the displeased tilt of his mouth. "Agent Coulson? Do you have a question?" Fury asked.
Eyes turned to him, the weight of the regard of his colleagues a near physical presence. "More of a statement, sir," Phil replied. Fury gestured with his hand, for Phil to continue. "These mutants are people, sir. They're humans." The scientist rose and began objecting, clarifying exactly how human he judged the mutants to be, but Phil silenced him with one raised finger. "They had human parents, they're citizens of somewhere. They have human desires and needs. They are humans. They may look different or have special capabilities beyond normal humans, but they are not, simply because of some accident of biology, monsters predestined to destruction."
"Regardless of what hippie mumbo-jumbo you were raised on—" Fury began but was cut off by Ramos.
"Coulson's right. If we start treating these guys different because of how they look or what their biology says; that's racism, pure and simple."
The room was silent, holding its breath in the way like that which the whole world seems to, before a tornado touched down. "Are you calling me a racist?" Fury asked, disbelief clear in his voice.
"No, sir. I believe Agent Ramos was pointing out that undertaking discriminatory action towards a particular group due to heritage or biology was tantamount to racist policy making," Phil corrected evenly. He was very aware of the paper-thin ice he was treading, but was unwilling to back down. Sitwell stared at him in bug-eyed shock. Ramos shot him an approving look of support.
Fury seemed to seriously contemplate unleashing a verbal assault which would leave both Ramos and Phil blistered and bleeding. He then visibly reined in the urge, pursing his lips so hard they paled.
"Given your interest in the topic, Agent Coulson, Agent Ramos, you will be joining Agent Wright on the policy development task force. Each of you will be expected to choose another member to ensure representation of the involved departments and a total of six members. Congratulation, gentlemen." The room began buzzing in relief and debate. "Shut it, Agents," Fury ordered. "Agents Coulson and Ramos will also be working up threat assessments for known mutant players.”
The room waited, silent and attentive. "Dismissed!" Fury finished. The room emptied in an orderly jumble, leaving Coulson, Sitwell, Wright, and Ramos in their seats.
"Holy fucking shit, Phil, I saw your life flash before my eyes," Sitwell hissed almost before the room was emptied. Agent Wright looked like he wanted to be anywhere but in a mutant policy committee in a top secret government agency.
Phil spared a fond look for Sitwell and a reassuring nod. "That was gutsy, Agent," Ramos told him. "The Director doesn't like mutants and their kind to begin with; taking a stand for them was risky."
Phil frowned. "I wasn't willing to sit by and potentially let something disastrous and discriminatory become codified within SHIELD," he said after a minute.
Phil had a good deal of experience with people who were beyond what was considered the normal spectrum in the outside world. Aside from the individuals in his hometown who had suffered maiming and mutilations, ritual and otherwise, there were a good number of mutants, suspected extra-terrestrials, and people touched by the great power of inter dimensional beings beyond the comprehension of the average population and irreparably changed by that contact.
People who were an unusual color or had a peculiar number or type of limbs or eyes or orifices were the norm. Telepathy and telekinesis were abilities that, provided you had the right sort of brain chemistry, a strong determination, and a good bit of time on your hands, were well within the grasp of most Night Vale residents. More rare abilities and appearances were... more rare, but nothing was beyond the realm of the possible, in Phil's mind. When he had met Jeanine and Ramos during his first encounter with other Night Valiens in the outside world, he had felt the need to inquire about his co workers.
"Everyone seems really..." Phil paused, trying to think of the right way to put it. "Standardized," he decided on finally. Ramos squinted, but Jeanine nodded sympathetically.
"I had a hard time telling everyone apart when I was first out. I had six brothers; two sets of triplets and all of them different colors. Folks out here? It's all peach and tan and brown." She rolled her eyes. "I always used to wonder why some folks got the itch to get out of town and some never seemed to want to leave. I figure there must be something telling the more creatively put together ones that it's not safe out here for them."
Phil glanced at Wright and took a bite of his now-cold pizza. It was satisfying in the way only cold pizza with just the right herb blend and just the proper amount of sauce could be, sating a juvenile hunger. Wright seemed to sense Phil's gaze and glanced up. "Look, I don't know anything about mutants. I just pissed off the Director."
"How?" Sitwell asked, curious.
"I mislabeled the interdepartmental mail so his requisition for a rocket launcher got sent through payroll and the L1 agents' payroll from during the last HR session got sent through requisition. There's a bunch of trainees that are listed as equipment now, and the rocket launcher is getting health bennies."
"That might come in handy, later. Get me some of their names and we'll talk about doing this without you," Ramos promised.
Which was how SHIELD got one of the most liberal mutant hiring policies in any government agency along with one of the most extensive contingency plan folios. The trainees that were classified as equipment even came in handy during an attempted incursion, single-handedly freeing enough senior agents to reclaim headquarters due to their apparent non-human status within the computer systems.
I have about three more chapters planned out, with a final Homecoming chapter or two to wrap this thing up. I do accept plot bunnies so if you have something that would fit here, it never hurts to ask. Thanks for all teh lovely supportive comments and suggestions.
Chapter 6: Creatures of the briny deep
Phil shifted from asleep to awake without any noticeable change in his breathing, posture, or muscle tension. The car had stopped and Barton was stuffing the little bits of garbage they had acquired in the last seven hours in the car, into a plastic bag with short, rustling jabs.
"Hmm?" Phil made a questioning noise and he felt Barton glance at him.
"Lunch," Barton answered simply. Phil took in a deep breath and rose from where he had been sleeping. They were on a little back road, parked next to a shack with a spray painted sign reading 'po Boys n chow'.
"Really?" he asked Barton, deadpan.
"Really," Barton replied. "Barney and I lived at one of these places for like, three months when the circus was on winter hiatus. You're not going to get parasites from it or anything."
Phil looked suspiciously at the shack. They had a strict 'driver picks the food' policy, which Phil was unwilling to violate even in the face of the overwhelming mystery that was the little shack. He had no idea what a 'po boy' was, and he was no more excited to find out what constituted chow.
Barton was already at the window, ordering. Phil sighed and got out of the car. Barton held up a can of grape soda and a water bottle invitingly. Phil pointed at the water bottle and caught it in a flawless toss. Barton sprawled on one of three wobbly plastic chairs around a packing bale set up like a table. "What're we eating?" Phil asked, settling in the more stable-looking of the remaining chairs.
"Oyster po boys, red beans and rice and banana pudding."
"Oysters?" Phil asked, eyes narrowed in displeasure.
"Yeah - that's not a problem, right? You're not... allergic?" Barton actually looked nervous. They hadn't been working together that long, and Barton had been a difficult asset to acquire to begin with. They were not acting in what one would call harmony, yet.
"No. Not allergic," Phil replied. "I just didn't grow up eating much seafood. I was quite a ways from the ocean," he added.
"Yeah?" Barton tried to feign mild interest, but the fact that Phil never discussed his past had obviously not escaped him. "Where did you grow up?"
Phil shrugged. "A little town in the middle of the desert. Same old same old small town stuff; incestuous town council, small town sports, gravity well strong enough that people rarely escape."
Barton chuffed a laugh. "I know how that can be." Barton did not seem to realize that Phil was referencing an actual gravity well, but that was probably for the best. "So you're not a big fish guy?"
Phil shrugged again. "It wasn't something I grew up eating," he reiterated. It wasn't that he wasn't an adventurous eater, but rather that he was very cautious until he was familiar with something new, and was satisfied it wouldn't turn into deadly animals, was not tainted with radiation, foreign chemicals or alien entities, and was not too spicy. Seafood had always struck him as having a high probability of turning into, if not a deadly animal, at least a hostile one.
A greasy but pleasant-looking woman brought out huge sandwiches on newspaper, red plastic cups of beans and rice, and smaller cups filled with pudding, and dropped them on the 'table'. Clint grinned up at her and gave her a little salute. She rolled her eyes and ambled back into the shack. "Just don't think about it too hard and it's delicious," Barton assured him.
Phil eyed up the sandwich leerily. Shredded lettuce, tomato slices and breaded blobs spilled out of a baguette. Phil reached a finger towards the blob (his pinky finger, which he knew he could shoot his gun without) and tapped it. "Quit thinking and put it in your mouth," Barton ordered.
Phil raised an eyebrow at his asset clearly communicating just how thin of ice he was walking. Barton was nose-deep in his sandwich making contented, delighted sounds. He wrapped the sandwich in his hands and eyes wide open, took a bite. And chewed. And swallowed. He had long ago learned the importance of finishing what he'd started, especially when that something was a bite of food. There was nothing more disturbing than having to re-chew a bite in order to swallow it, after it had already escaped his mouth once through luck or ingenuity. His brain sent a variety of confused signals which canceled out into quite simply that he wanted to take another bite. He did.
The bite was unlike anything he had ever had before, but it was alarmingly, intensely alluring. It was salty and rich, fatty, starchy, and just a little bit sweet. It was crunchy, hot and cool and crisp, pliant and resistant to his teeth in turns. The strong briny undertones and indescribable overtones of iodine and minerals reminded him strongly of the wind off the desert wastes which preceded a rare rainstorm. The turbulent confusion of the flavor was familiar; craving without understanding why he craved; equal repulsion and attraction which tore at his desires and puppeted him towards actions both terrifying and magnetic. He must have made a sound because Barton looked at him with wide eyes. Phil groaned again in a homesick, lost sort of appreciation.
"You like," Barton asked after a massive swallow. Phil could only nod, staring distrustful down at his sandwich. "Yeah, they're like that but you get used to it," Barton added.
Phil studied his asset. Did people not-of-Night-Vale experience that same push-pull tumultuous attraction-repulsion that he had experienced so often through childhood that it was now a trigger for homesickness? By outward appearances Barton was thoroughly enjoying his sandwich without the least hint of internal conflict, but when he reached out with senses beyond the usual five, Phil felt the old familiar curl of bittersweet remembrance nestled deep within Barton. To cover a vague feeling of unease at the resonant parallel he had just discovered Phil took another bite of his sandwich, and another.
Before he knew that he had been hungry, his sandwich was gone and Barton was smirking delightedly at him. "You ate these when you were a child?" Phil asked. It seemed dangerous that a young individual was opened to the mystery and wisdom that was implicit in those briny, ancient blobs enrobed in cornmeal and anointed with lard.
Barton shrugged. "The circus broke down around here about two weeks from close of season and we just decided it was stopping time early. Bunked down with some creoles the boss knew from way back. They taught me to drink beer and suck crawfish. Oh my god crawfish — those mudbugs are going to blow your mind."
Phil let out a contented breath, feeling something around his heart that had been constricting tighter and tighter, loosen. Some part of the salt flats he'd grown up around remembered the time they had been oceans, teeming with life and verve. Some part of that briny life force had lived on, soaking into the dry desert inhabitants that had settled on the corpse of its children. That soul of richer, ocean times, had wormed its way into each and every one of them, putting a craving in the back of their tongues and the bottoms of their lungs for something which they had never tasted and would never breathe. As he ate, he felt that strangleheld tendril ease and move from his lungs to his stomach, soaking a satisfaction he had not known he needed from his meal.
Barton groaned, sated and relaxed as well.
Chapter 7: Hamming it up
Holidays are fraught with mixed feelings.
I'd like to thank every single person who's commented and kudo'ed - this is my first experience putting a story out before it's all finished and it's just been lovely to exchange notes with folks. I have a final chapter in the works that'll probably be a two-parter at least. Hope you enjoy!
Phil and Sitwell were holed up in headquarters dealing with the classification of old case files as a punishment for something neither of them was going to be talking about any time soon. Sitwell stood and stretched. “I’m going down to records to get the supplementals for this one; you need anything?”
“Why are you going down to records? We can request them with the pneumatic tubes.” Phil pointed at the tube system which was slowly becoming obsolete as networked computer systems were installed through every SHIELD outpost, large and small.
“Or I could just go down to records.” He saw something in Phil’s expression. “What?”
“I just don’t like records,” Phil replied. Trying to think of something that would placate his partner he added, “It smells funny.”
“It smells like a library,” Sitwell said with a confused look. “And sometimes like acetone.”
“Exactly.” Phil shuddered.
“You... don’t like the smell of libraries?” Sitwell asked. “How man? Libraries are the best!” Sitwell sprawled back in the chair he had just been intending to vacate, arms spread in an enthusiastic arc. “Man, when I was a kid, the library was the only place in town they’d let you in for free that had air conditioning. They like, showed movies, and had story time, and you’d do the summer reading program and get these little books of stickers...”
Phil was staring at him in obvious confusion. In the six years since coming to SHIELD, he had managed to completely avoid libraries. He spent a lot on books as a result, sure, but he didn’t have many other luxury items he invested in. After all, his assault rifles weren’t luxury items; they were a necessity. The grenade launcher he could admit, was a luxury item.
“Your parents... let you got to the library?”
Sitwell was looking at him as though he might have sprouted a second head, which was really highly unlikely at his age, and outside the influence of Night Vale’s Auxiliary Cranium Corps. “My parents were busting-out-of-their-pants happy that I was a nerd and wanted to go to the library instead of joining a gang. What did you do summers?”
“Death marches with the Scouts mostly. Everything’s more deadly in the desert in the middle of summer. The scorpions could get as long as your arm.”
“I think you’re exaggerating; I’ve never heard of a scorpion that big.”
“If you killed them in single combat they made good eating, though. Almost like crab legs, I was told.”
Sitwell rolled his eyes, “I’m going to records to inhale that sweet perfume of knowledge.” He breathed in deeply as demonstration.
“You have your sidearm?” Phil asked. Sitwell wouldn’t carry anything more powerful than a regulation pistol around headquarters.
Sitwell knocked a knuckle against his shoulder holster which made a reassuring clack. “Ready to take down any feisty archivists.”
Phil nodded dubiously.
"So like, what was where you grew up, like?" Sitwell asked in frustration.
"Have you ever seen the 'Blue Man Group'?" Phil asked. Sitwell shook his head 'no'. "Hmm," Phil replied, a thoughtful noise completely devoid of answers for his partner.
Phil acquired tickets to a show and invited a consternated but curious Sitwell along. They were in the middle of the theatre, well-situated to take in the entirety of the show. The thrumming, driving drum beats, the disorienting lights and colors, and the inherently simplistic nature of the show — physical comedy and music — embodied everything Phil remembered of home. The otherworldly nature of the blue men, combined with their utterly human qualities were a perfected juxtaposition.
The show finished, a riot of movement, noise, light, and extra-sensory cacophony, and Sitwell gave him a look. "I have no idea how that could relate to your childhood in the least, unless you did a lot of acid as a town."
"That possibility was investigated," Phil admitted. "No evidence for large scale psychotropic dosing was found."
"See, I never know if you're serious or just fucking with me," Sitwell fretted.
"I assure you," Phil replied in his best deadpan, "I have never lied or prevaricate regarding my history, except where prohibited by legal gag orders or requirements by secret societies."
Sitwell glared at him.
“I am not working Easter. We are not working Easter. It’s Easter for christssake. I have to eat my body weight in ham and sweet potatoes. How would they expect me to work? We’re not working, Phil, that’s final.” Phil chewed the inside of his lip covertly, glancing around their desks. They were covered in paperwork that was not going to do itself over the holiday weekend. “Look buddy, I know you don’t have a big pile of family to go visit, and we’re hardly christian crusaders, but jesus, go take a fucking holiday.”
“I don’t like holidays. The celebration of ritualized murder of non-Christians doesn’t seem like something I should take time off for, even if I’m not a first-born heathen.”
“That’s passover,” Sitwell told him. Phil shrugged. “Look, I’m as christian as the next lapsed Catholic; it doesn’t have to be about that. It’s just... like, eating candy with the kids and being happy we made it through to spring and that everything is having babies.” Sitwell had children just the right age to appreciate the commercial orgy that happened around Easter without any of the graver connotations of their inherited religion.
“I’d prefer to just come in as normal,” Phil insisted.
“Fine, but I won’t be here.” Sitwell left, his stride just a little too fast and a little too hard to be completely free of anger.
Phil got a message on his answering machine later that night. “Look, Phil, I know you don’t have anybody and that sometimes holidays can be hard like that, so I’m sorry if I was a dick. My sister is coming over with her kids on Sunday after church; if you get done with your paperwork and feel like it, come on over, okay?”
Phil considered the offer all day Saturday while he went through his weekly errands and chores, and Sunday morning when the bells in the church down the street went off with raucous peals and woke him with the dawn. He considered it as he walked in to work, empty and dark except for a few security personnel. He considered it as he closed a few case files, jammed them into pneumatic tubes, and sent them to their final rest. He didn’t realize he’d made a decision until he was changing trains to go to Queens instead of getting off at his normal stop to go home.
Sitwell was a good mile and a half off of the subway in a two-bedroom house smushed between other tiny two-bedroom houses. He had a tiny yard in the back, and a cheerful if ramshackle-looking porch. Phil stopped at one of the few open bodegas and picked up some flowers before he arrived.
“Uncle Phil!” Sitwell’s oldest shouted in excitement. She was hanging on the porch railing upside down, shirt falling over her nose and mouth.
“Miss Sitwell,” Phil greeted coyly.
“It’s Lottie Uncle Phil,” she admonished.
“My apologies, Miss Sitwell,” Phil replied, mischievous.
“Philll,” she shrieked in delighted reproof, sliding off the porch railing and running into the house.
Phil let himself in the front door and was immediately assaulted by Lottie’s little brother, who latched on to Phil’s shin and sat on his foot, somehow keeping his thumb in his mouth while he did. He looked up at Phil with dark, sombre eyes, and when Phil looked into the deepest place within the small boy he saw weighty, important things in his future.
“JJ, what did I say about doing that with guests?” Rosa asked, appearing out of the kitchen with a glass of wine at the ready. JJ looked up at Phil solemnly. Phil met his gaze. Rosa took JJ under the arms, pried him off of Phil’s leg, and set him against her hip. “Sorry, Phil. Jasper said you might make it; here.” She handed him the wine glass and leaned forward to kiss his cheeks.
The cheek-kissing was a ritual which had thrown him off the first time he had met Jasper’s then-fiancee. Getting that close had usually indicated to Phil that someone was going to attempt mating with him, or devour his physical form or his soul in whole or part. The light, dry kisses had been entirely unexpected, and he’d nearly burst a blood vessel reigning in his instinctual countermeasures, lest he strike down this woman he had just met. Now it was a reminder that he was on safe ground, with peaceable friends.
“You’re looking well,” Phil told her with a smile. “And I got you these.” He held out the bunch of sunflowers, bright gold heralds of summer.
“Thank you, Phil. The boys are in the back.”
“Do you need a hand with anything?” Phil asked, ever polite.
“Just make sure they don’t set their hair on fire. I don’t trust Frank with the smoker.”
Phil raised an eyebrow, nodded, and went to the little back yard. The whole thing smelled like a smoke house in the best and worst ways. Sitwell was sprawled in a plastic recliner with two children climbing over him. Frank, Sitwell’s brother in law, was hovering around an ancient smoker as though he badly wanted to do something to it. A plate of deviled eggs, chips, and salsa which Phil was relatively certain simply tasted of smoked pork at this point were set next to the smoker.
“Phil!” Sitwell greeted. “Pull up a...” Sitwell looked around and seemed to realize there weren’t any more chairs, “..piece of grass.”
“We’re telling Easter stories for candy,” the younger of the children told him.
“Do you have a story? I’ll eat your candy if you don’t want it,” the older offered.
Phil sat leaning against the neighbor’s fence, soaking up the spring sunshine. “Have I ever told you about the time the Easter Bunny came to visit?” Phil asked.
Both children shook their heads ‘no’.
“Well, I was a little older than the two of you when—”
“Is this going to end with these children who aren’t even mine scarred for life?” Sitwell asked.
“Why would you—”
“Does it involve blood?”
“And age-inappropriate weapons handling?” Sitwell continued.
“Well that really depends on what you think is—”
“Does this end with you skinning and eating the Easter Bunny by any chance?”
“Of course not! He’d already cannibalized half of a housing subdivision. I wasn’t about to eat him after that. Besides, he was my mother’s kill in the end.”
“You got a weird sense of humor, Coulson,” Frank commented. The children were staring at Phil, open-mouthed.
“Yeah, that’s a story you don’t need to go into details for. Let’s just say your childhood was awful and terrifying and leave it at that. Here, have a peep.” Sitwell ripped a yellow marshmallow duckling off a row of its brethren and offered one to Phil. Phil bit off its head smartly to avoid any animation or re-animation issues with the marshmallow bird.
“We’re ready,” Rosa called out the screen door. “Bring the meat.”
“That’s our signal,” Sitwell said, struggling to rise under the weight of two children.
Frank popped open the smoker and immediately began coughing at the rush of smoke. Sitwell had religious feelings about smoked meat, and thus Phil was not surprised that he was smoking an already smoked ham, covered in a thick layer of sugar and spices.
Phil knew academically that holidays in the outside world were only infrequently the blood-soaked bacchanals he remembered with a sinking fear from his childhood. He had so rarely participated in the cultural rituals that that knowledge had remained academic. He managed to subsume his apprehension beneath a veneer of social graces until, halfway through dinner, his apprehension broke like a high fever. The adults sat at one table while the children sat at a smaller one, sometimes fighting and sometimes miming the adults. They all prayed to some degree before beginning to eat.
The meat was over smoked, but delicious; tender, sweet under the overpoweringly pungent taste of woodsmoke. The sweet potatoes were so overpoweringly sweet Phil was concerned his teeth would stick together. The peas tasted like little more than peas and pea-water. Somehow, it was all perfect. It all came together and said ‘family’ in a way Phil couldn’t remember tasting since after he was an only child.
“I’m glad you came,” Sitwell said to Phil during a lull in the conversation. “Woulda been entirely too normal without you,” he added with a smirk.
“Uncle Phil, tell us about the Easter Bunny!” Lottie begged.
Phil poked at his hospital meal without much verve. He had gotten used to tasting through his skin, enveloped by warm comfortable flavors, and the process of once more becoming accustomed to the use of his tongue was not going well. The process was not aided by the bland hospital food. Sitwell watched him poke his food with a frown. The somewhat chemical-laden flavor of instant mashed potatoes made its way through his fingertip, the faintest trace of starchy nutrition soaking into his bloodstream.
“Are you just going to play with that?” Sitwell asked. He had either been reassigned to full-time Phil-watching duty, or he had taken a leave of absence to put himself on full-time Phil-watching duty.
Phil shrugged, feeling petulant. He had a caffeine headache now that he’d been taken out of his coffee tub, and he was honestly just hurting. Pain medication wouldn’t touch the pain grating over the surfaces of his nerves, and though it was not debilitating, it did reduce his ability to deal with interpersonal relationships. The pain was the cost of being alive; he knew that well and would not begrudge its place in his life. He would begrudge Sitwell for staring at him as though he was the second coming.
“Could you please quit staring at me like that?” Phil asked.
“Like my partner of 26 years -- the man I have known longer than my wife -- has miraculously risen from the dead and doesn’t seem much the worse for the wear after having been stabbed through the heart by an alien god? Like that?” Sitwell asked.
“No, I don’t think I will stop staring at you like that,” Sitwell retorted. “For god’s sake, just eat the damned potatoes.”
“I can’t taste much yet,” Phil admitted.
Phil shrugged. “It’s complicated.”
“Explain it to me.”
“I don’t have to explain myself to you any more than I have to explain myself to the doctors,” Phil retorted, actually sounding angry.
Sitwell’s forehead crinkled and he dropped his head. “Look, Phil, you’ve been there for me since forever. You’ve been there for my kids when I couldn’t be, and you’ve been there for Rosa when I couldn’t be and we always got each other home. I never claimed to understand all of you, but I accepted that shit, because as fucked up as it got, you were always there when it counted. That was something I was sure I’d lost when I got the casualty list from HQ. And I cried, man. Rosa cried. My kids fucking cried over your sorry ass. So no, you don’t have to explain it to me, but I’m asking you; let me in. Let me know what’s going on, because honestly? I’m lost, and I’m scared that you’re gonna drop dead any minute because I don’t know how the fuck any of this is happening, and I’m scared.”
Phil closed his eyes and tongued on his tooth radio, the humming burr of Night Vale radio comfortable and familiar. He raised his hand, elbow resting on the bed sheets. Sitwell took his palm as though they were arm-wrestling, but gently. That was one of the things Phil had always loved and admired about Sitwell; his ability to trust, and his willingness to follow that trust into the strangest, scariest of situations. It had saved them both more than once.
Phil called up one of his dark passengers, running his tongue along its inky underbelly and filling it with words and knowledge. There were no explanations to be found about Phil or Night Vale, but there was a certain wellspring of knowledge that he could help Sitwell tap that might, in some visceral way, illuminate things.
When Phil opened his eyes, Sitwell was staring at him with a slight frown; not critical, but curious. He drew their hands towards his mouth and parted his lips, allowing the questing tendrils of his inkblot companion to flow out. He gave it a little nudge with the tip of his tongue, and it crawled out on his knuckles. Sitwell had gone distinctly white around the eyes, but gripped harder instead of pulling away.
“This might hurt just a bit,” Phil confessed as the inkblot quested over their knuckles, pulling itself towards the back of Sitwell’s hand.
“Is it gonna leave a mark? Because Rosa—” Whatever his wife was going to do to him was cut short when the inkblot wrapped around his hand, the mouth head latching on as it burrowed in. Sitwell yelped in surprise. Phil felt the moment the dark passenger was no longer his; the moment it left his sphere of influence and became one with his friend, carrying with it just a taste of the unvarnished reality of Phil’s life before SHIELD. It was not all sad, and it was not all golden-tinted nostalgia. Sitwell’s palm got sweaty, and Phil could track the progress of the dark passenger up his partner’s arm in a bruising swirl of extrasensory perception. As it arrived at Sitwell’s brain, his partner’s eyes went wide and he slumped forward onto Phil’s healing chest. Phil patted his head absently. He wasn’t looking forward to explaining this to any nurses who walked in.
I'm writing a fanale set of chapters (fer serious - I have about 6k written already...) but I'm not putting them up until the arc is complete. Until then I hope you enjoyed some Sitwell and Phil.
Chapter 9: Dust in the lungs, heat in the eyes
Some things are hungry for living prey: some things below Night Vale.
This is the first half of what I think will be a final two-parter (perhaps broken in the middle with a young!Phil chapter). I wasn't planning on posting before I was done, but then there was a chapter brake! Enjoy, and happy Friday!
The scout motto was “always be prepared for the end” and Phil held to that motto religiously.
Phil liked to think that he never became less prepared, but rather that the situations he became prepared for shifted with a steady pace from the dangers he encountered in his youth to those of his adult life. He had not lost the ability to cope with the sun not rising from night to morning, but was simply more ready for a cadre of ninja assassins to burst through his bedroom window before first light. The things Phil worried about, more than twenty years out of Night Vale, were the sorts of things that every SHIELD Agent worried about; aliens, terrorism, nuclear powers, super-beings, advanced technology, and the threat of rogue AIs.
When Barton and Doctor Banner had asked if he’d like to join them in a trip to the Cloisters, Phil had been surprised that Barton wanted to go to the Cloisters, but he had agreed to accompany them. They walked to the subway, swiped their cards and waited for a train to arrive.
Barton and Banner had developed a surprising friendship. Where Stark prodded and poked at Banner’s alter ego constantly, Barton simply leaned, comfortable pushing his psyche against Banner’s in a way which Phil found extraordinary. The fact that the Other Guy seemed to genuinely like Barton didn’t hurt. They argued about some science fiction movie’s plausibility until the E arrived then and through their transfer onto an A train. Barton and Banner were both smirking, tolerant of each other in the way that friends could be, while arguing.
Around the 86th Street stop, a prickle of unease began tickling at Phil’s hairline. By the time they pulled out of 103rd he was on full alert. Something was wrong. His sixth or seventh sense was going berzerk, sending warnings of danger, of otherness, of psychic incursions licking at the edges of his perception, and of the sinking, disoriented feeling of falling blind. The muscles around Banner’s eyes tightened in puzzlement and then concern. He glanced at Phil and their eyes met, the deeper pools that represented each of their essences reaching out through those imperfect portals and touching one another. Phil tasted the other man’s concern and smelled his spike of fear.
“What’s going on?” Banner asked in a low undertone.
Barton broke off mid sentence glancing between them and growing tense himself.
“I don’t know,” Phil replied. Normally this would be the time that he tapped into training almost as old as he was and reached out and gather information. A finely honed sense of the unknown told him that under no circumstances should he do that; that sticking his nose out the car window would only cause him to lose his nose or worse. He itched at his own skin in a mixture of yawning terror and overwhelming curiosity.
Their subway car sped past 116th, the others with them in the car began to notice something was wrong. Barton pulled his cell out and began attempting to dial out.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Phil warned as they sped through tunnels of increasing unfamiliar makeup.
Barton squinted out the windows. The palpable feeling of panic was building within the car, but the passengers were oddly silent. A jewel-toned subway station complete with glittering platform tiles and ornate cornices sped by. The train slowed slightly when they hit the next platform, this one dark and decrepit. Shadows and horrors lurked behind the columns and in the ceiling. Phil put his hand over Barton’s eyes firmly. “Don’t look,” he ordered. He felt the confused blink of Barton’s eyelashes over his palm, but his asset didn’t struggle. Phil stared down the horrors, making it clear this subway car was his alone and not for the touch of their sharp, moist fingers. They hissed their submission on a frequency only Phil could hear, but which everyone present could sense. A shiver went through the passengers.
Green was ringing Banner’s eyes and he was looking desperately at Phil for guidance. The subway car moved out of the range of the subway platform and began speeding up again. Phil took his hand from Barton’s eyes and nudged him towards Banner with a meaningful look. His asset knelt by Banner and began talking quietly to him. The train car continued to accelerate past the bounds that seemed physically possible. The chassis shook and thundered, the lights flicked on and off in blinding strobes, and the viscerally alarming smell of overheated metal seeped into the pores of their tiny rocket tube of a conveyance.
Barton was having some success calming Banner’s breathing. Phil spent the quiet moment to center and access his Sight, blinking through the bright auras of fear, terror, metaphysical anguish, and horror to see what had hijacked their subway car. Ropy tentacle arms had holds on the exterior of the car, and were pulling it through a series of dimensional rifts towards its final gaping destination.
“Phil?” Barton was asking him, a hand on his arm.
“Yeah,” Phil replied, forcing his eyes shut.
“What’s going on?”
“You think I know?” Phil replied, trying for light reproof. It came out harsher than he intended.
“Yeah. You’re way too calm about this shit.” Barton’s hand was still on his arm, an anchor on his bicep. “I know you; what do you know?”
Phil shrugged uncomfortably. Barton had wormed behind the shields he kept between Before Helicopters and After Helicopters. He knew on some subconscious level that all the rumors about Phil weren’t just sophomoric jaw flapping. “Something is pulling us in. I can... it’s made of hunger... and knowledge... It’s tasting us.”
Barton glanced around quickly, looking for the entity or being which Phil was describing. “That sounds... is that bad? That sounds bad.”
“I don’t think it’s particularly good, but there’s not much we can do but quiver and chant.”
Banner’s eyes turned towards them and met Phil’s gaze. “I got some experience in that area, as a matter of fact,” he said, nostrils still flared with the effort of keeping the Hulk contained. Banner stuck out a hand in a jerky motion. Phil took it, shifting to grasp Barton’s arm.
“Just let it take you,” he suggested to Barton before beginning his favorite chant in Delta Bulgarian. Banner joined in with a green-tinged ‘om’, and Barton began vocalizing something, perhaps a death metal song, perhaps country music. Banner fumbled towards the nearest passenger and made contact, somehow bringing the stranger into their coterie. Feeling the power of their voices grow, Phil did the same, and the slow march of their circle’s growth finally took over the entire car. People were praying, singing, reciting poetry, and simply forming repetitive streams of vowel sounds, but they were no longer frozen in silent terror. The car didn’t slow, but it became less sure of its course.
In the absence of a stone circle, the energy they were setting loose formed clouds and angry dust devils in the subway car, searching out a vessel. He didn’t intend to, but by observing the energies, the energies observed him and found him adequate to their purposes. The emotional weather flowed into Phil, filling tanks and reserves he did not know he had possessed, and opening ways in his mind which were not and should not have been opened. Like a cork on a champagne bottle, Phil’s psychic dams popped. As they did so, the whole car shook, leapt, and went careening off the tracks it had been on.
Sound stopped working. Light was inverted and everything smelled of strawberry fields forever. The subway car erupted from under ground, propelled by an invisible force and protected from being smashed to pieces on the hard desert topsoil by the will Phil channeled. The car flew for a few weightless seconds and landed with a crash all the more deafening for the fact that sound had not worked in the intervening period of time. Everyone was thrown from their seats and crouches to one end of the subway car. The heated metal smell was stronger, and smoke was coming in through a broken window.
Phil felt the residual energies coursing through his blood, energizing his dark passengers, and making his heart beat a rhythm somewhere between a samba and that of the unceasing rhythm of the breath of the universe. Barton and Banner groaned in tandem. The passengers were beginning to make noises, whimpers, cries, and the moans of the minorly injured. Desert heat seeped in like a physical presence. Barton was on his feet already, while Banner was looking towards the few minor injuries.
Phil stood and forced an already broken window out of its housing with a well-aimed kick. Carefully avoiding glass and metal shards, he clambered out to get a look around. The remains of the entrance to a subway station were scattered across the landscape from where they had erupted like a particularly aggressive boil.
The subway car had landed in the outskirts of a trailer park. It had landed slightly askew from the orientation of the other trailers, but otherwise appeared like a particularly disheveled member of the herd of non-permanent housing, having crashed through an unused white picket fence and skidded into the gravel front yard of an unoccupied plot. Residents of the trailer park were turning their periscopes towards the hubbub with thinly veiled curiosity. The rise of plateaus in the distance was unsettlingly familiar. Phil felt a sinking feeling deep within the pit of his stomach that was a combination of terrible realization, and the congregation of his dark passengers in the safety of his lower bowel.
Ducking back into the safety of their car, Banner had gotten the other passengers sorted into groups that were uninjured, uninjured but going into shock, and actually injured, and was attempting to tend to the last group. Barton was helping a hyperventilating woman by breathing with her. “Sitrep,” he demanded without looking up.
Phil took a moment to think before replying. “I know where we are. We’re not in immediate danger but that could change at any minute.”
“Hostiles?” Barton asked.
“None immediate. We may be able to get medical help shortly.”
“Where are we?” Banner asked.
“A physical-temporal anomaly based in the deserts in the southwest.”
“What kind of anomaly?”
“It’s difficult to say,” Phil replied. “Any scientists who’ve made a serious effort at studying it have disappeared or gone extremely, spectacularly insane.”
“So how do you know anything about it?” Barton asked.
“I grew up here.” Phil frowned, looking at the train passengers who had begun looking to him as though he knew what to do. He made a decision. “The Secret Police are going to be here in less than five minutes. Everyone; wallets out. I need every form of photo ID on your persons.” They all stared dumbly at him. “Now. You too,” he added, indicating Banner and Barton.
Barton recognized the underlying fear that laced Phil’s words, and fished out all his IDs, handing them over. That unleashed a flood of bank cards, state identifications, and school IDs. Phil gathered them in a stack and pressed his palms into them, willing the residual energies into his hands. The stack of plastic and laminate began to blur and melt, most of the cards sticking together into a brick of unreadable identification. A few of the cards on the top and bottom simply curled up like dead leaves, the photos blurred beyond recognition.
The passengers seemed to realize that now was a good time to keep quiet about any irregular behavior, and simply nursed their injuries and blooming psychological disorders quietly.
“Your eyes,” Barton hissed in an undertone. He was already picking up on the subconscious necessities of the town; good.
Phil blinked, feeling the sparks of green from Banner’s contribution to the chant flicker around the edge of his irises. “It’s fine,” he replied with a shake of his head.
There was a knock on the exterior of the subway car, and then a trio of balaclava clad secret police tumbled in through the broken window. “Excuse me, sir; we’ve had noise complaints. We’re going to have to ask you to relocate your subway—”
“Phil?” the second secret police-person asked, sounding disbelieving.
“Phil Coulson?” the third asked.
“—car to an underground location or install suitable sanitary facilities so that it can be reclassified as a residence,” the first secret police-person continued, unperturbed by his companions’ interruptions.
“You took a helicopter out of town. What are you doing back? Nobody returns,” the second one insisted in a growling undertone.
“And who are these people?” the third asked, indicating the confused and injured passengers.
A persona which he had not shrugged on in quite some time settled on Phil’s shoulders like a well-worn jacket. “What people, officer?” Phil asked, in a commanding deadpan.
“Those,” the second police-person pointed at the cowering passengers.
“Those are equipment requisition,” Phil replied.
“They are clearly—”
“Equipment,” Phil insisted, the seeping power of psychic suggestion working its way into the secret police, all the more potent for its lack of use in the past decades. “I need you to store them in the abandoned mine shaft outside of town, until such time as they are required. Remember; equipment, not personnel.” Equipment storage cells were not quite as heavy on the amenities, but they did not include daily interrogation sessions or a ticket in the weekly death-lottery. The civilians would be safer there than practically anywhere in the town.
“Identifications please,” The first police-person demanded, hand out.
One woman shook her head mutely. A feisty teen stuck his chin out. “We don’t have any ID. No ID here.”
“It’s all gone,” an ancient grandmother added in a lost undertone. “It’s gone. It’s all gone. Where did it go?”
“You can not—” the third police-person began, obviously the most resistant to Phil’s powers of suggestion.
“Some of the items were damaged in transit; please see to their repairs. Quickly, please,” Phil insisted, and he felt their wills fold. The secret police squad began herding the scared civilians out of the emergency exit at the end of the subway car.
“What’s going on?” one of the passengers asked Phil.
“These people are going to take care of you. Just don’t look too hard at the walls of the cells, okay?” Phil replied almost kindly. The passengers nodded, mute and scared-looking.
“Where are they taking—” Banner began to ask, but Phil cut him off with a look. Barton was almost bouncing with pent up energy, ready to fight or flee. Phil put a hand on him to keep him still, and tongued on his tooth transceiver, always set to the local Night Vale station.
“—be warned that the praying mantises of unusual size are not peaceable, no matter how pious they may appear. The brownstone spire has issued the following statement:” A sound not unlike a foghorn expelling the hopes and dreams of a conquered people lasted for about twenty seconds. “Excellent to hear from that artifice of Night Vale on such a dangerous insectoid development within our city limits.”
“Coulson,” Barton’s voice broke his concentration on the broadcast. He looked impassive, and anybody who didn’t know him as well as Phil would have probably said he looked angry. That was Barton’s honestly scared face. He blinked heavily, his eyelids feeling weighted and his mind feeling muzzy. “What is going on? What is the plan?”
The subway car had emptied while he was zoned out leaving Phil alone with Banner and Barton. Banner was in a surprisingly zen state of overwhelmed super-calm. Barton was in the middle of a good old-fashioned panic. “Lets figure out where we landed. I haven’t been in town in almost thirty years; it’s probably a bit different from what I remember.” Phil used the emergency exit in the front of the subway car, and took a moment to breathe in the desert air.
The heat and the dry settled in his lungs like an unwanted houseguest bedding down on his couch. The oppressive quality of the air combined with the beating pulse of the sun, and he felt a headache coming on. He put on his sunglasses and shrugged out of his suit jacket in an attempt to redirect some of the solar energy into his dark passengers, thereby regulating his core temperature without sweating heavily. The trailers surrounded them were decorated in various styles, from the garish and kitsch to themes of awakening awe at the vast unthinking nature of the universe. A neighboring periscope was aimed at them in curiosity. Phil pointed his index and middle finger at his eyes, and then the periscope in an, ‘I’m watching you’ motion. The ‘scope hastily swiveled away.
Barton moaned in displeasure at the heat, shrugging out of his light jacket and shading his eyes from the sun. Banner stuck to the shade, rolling up his shirtsleeves. Barton scrabbled up the outside of the subway car and surveyed the surrounding area. Unless there had been serious seismic activity since he left, it would be swaths of low-lying scrub land, rolling hills, and distant cliffs, where the city hadn’t formed like limescale on the unyielding crust of the planet.
“What do you see?” Phil asked, extending his senses outwards. The air had the sunbaked feeling of the afternoon, wavery and sleepy like the heat distortions on a distant highway. The air was quiet if not still, the only sound carrying over the wastes and the trailers being the shushing hiss of wind and the small movements of sand and gravel.
Barton squinted towards what was usually the west, orienting himself before scanning around their landing spot. Phil stared down another curious periscope.
“Uh...” Barton sounded hesitant, which was unusual.
“Just call it as you see it,” Phil reassured.
Barton put his back to the sun and began scanning in a slow half-circle. “There’s, uh... a house to the north east with a beam of heavenly light coming from clouds held stationary about five hundred feet over its roof.” Barton glanced down at Phil as though checking to see he was being taken seriously.
Phil nodded encouragement. “The lyrical quality you’re experiencing is just a residual effect from Poetry Week. Continue.” Phil pulled up his mental map of the city, displaying it on his palm. He marked the house and the swath of trailer park in a large patch of what had been scrub waste in his childhood. They were at the north end of town if Barton’s scrutiny of the south was anything to go by, which meant the house was Old Woman Josie’s.
Barton was outlining what would in the normal world be extremely unusual geographic and atmospheric anomalies, but which in Night Vale were simply landmarks, in beautiful prose.
“Let’s go see if the Angels have anything on this, to start with.” A particularly persistent periscope followed their progress out of their small party out of the trailer park. Phil aimed his index finger at the glass like a pistol, and dropped the ‘hammer’, his thumb, when it did not look away. The glass shattered. Neighboring periscopes which had been swiveling curiously around hurriedly turned their gaze elsewhere.
“Jesus, what the fuck?” Barton ducked and Banner looked troubled.
“How did you do that?” Banner asked, glancing back over his shoulder at the trailer, otherwise unharmed.
“There are some things that natives can do here,” Phil said with a shrug.
Banner perked. “Like what?”
Phil shrugged again. “An amplification of innate psychic and psychokinetic abilities. Prescience or precognition in some. A few hooded figures I’ve talked to have suggested the high rate of mutant presentation is a result of qualities of the spatial-temporal abnormalities, but I never manifested with anything terribly interesting. There’s a certain level of access to the collective unconscious that I took for granted until I left; you may be able to tap into that, though.”
Phil tongued on his tooth receiver. The weather was playing, a driving rhythmic mix of tycho drums and sitar melody. The preponderance of A flat useage and the choice of 5/4 time suggested sunny skies with a high probability of sun-strikes in the evenings of the next two days, provided they did not contain the letter ‘t’. Tonight was Tuesday, but they would have to watch out if they were still in Night Vale the tomorrow.
“Any idea what causes all of this?” Banner asked, quickening his pace so he walked side by side with Phil.
Phil shrugged. “Wondering that sort of thing isn’t good for your sanity or your health here. Which isn’t to discourage you, but simply to clarify why there are some questions I can not answer. It’s cannot, not will not.”
Cecil came back from the weather. “Some of you may have noticed the recent eruption of some of Night Vale’s newly installed subway. Well I’ve been asked to assure you, listeners, that none of the explosive outbursts of gas and debris are anything you should worry about, the city council told me via a barrage of dead penguins holding rolled scrolls in their beaks. Where they’re getting penguins this fresh, this far inland, I would like to know because let me tell you; the last time I indulged in some uncooked fish here in town it upset my tummy for days.” Phil smirked.
“What are you laughing at?” Barton asked, blocking his path and stopping.
“And if you say ‘nothing’ I am going to call you a liar and be 100% right. You have been zoning out on us.”
“—just the radio broadcast. It gets picked up by my transceiver tooth.” Phil opened his mouth and pointed at one of his molars which looked quite a lot like his other molars.
“The only reason I’m not saying you’ve gone insane is because if you have, I have too. Just so we’re clear.”
“I think you can hear it if you get the right spot on my jaw,” Phil continued unperturbed.
Phil felt around his jaw until he found the spot where the faint vibrations traveled through the bone. “Put your ear there.”
Barton looked suspicious. Banner shrugged. Barton got close, ear hovering next to Phil’s jaw. Phil rolled his eyes and forced his asset’s ear to seal over the skin there, the soft hum of Cecil’s voice barely enough for Barton to hear.
“—update on the mantis situation. They have taken up the position usually occupied by the traffic division of the secret police, directing traffic in several key intersections downtown. Due to their lack of differential coloring, it’s all green lights downtown, and green means go. Faster. Harder. So keep an eye out for unwary motorists; it’s really getting crazy out there with four fatal accidents already reported.”
“It sounds like you have a tiny sonorous crazy man in your mouth.”
“You’re not too far off,” Phil said, releasing Barton’s head. “I’m listening to the local news updates. They seem to have noticed our arrival. I’m hoping Ms. Josie has some otherworldly news that might explain how we got here.”
The sun beat down on them as they trudged towards the house under the heavenly beam of light. A mesquite tree, burnt out from a lightning strike stood gnarled and threatening in the front of the lot. A tire swing hung from it, and in the tire swing, a ten foot tall being with eyes and wings and a terrible mouth empty of words swung in the tire swing. The flapping rush of feathers through air was oddly disconnected from the being’s transit, penduluming forward and back.
“What is—” Banner began to ask, approaching the being and the swing at a diagonal as though that would help to avoid spooking it. Banner, as a result of the Hulk’s implicit protection, did not fear things as normal humans would fear them.
“I wouldn’t approach it,” Phil warned. “We should talk to Ms. Josie first.”
Barton gave the being a sidelong look and his hand flexed, as though he was wishing for his bow.
There was another being on the porch, lounging in a broken wicker chair. Phil stepped over its outstretched feet to open the screen door and knock politely on the inner door. The lounging being had only one set of wings and significantly less eyes, though its mouth contained no more words in compensation. Banner and Barton stood behind Phil and to the side so that he was nearest the angel. They were remarkably insightful.
Ms. Josie cracked open the door and peered out at Phil. “The prodigal son,” she said, with a papery smile. Ms. Josie had always seemed old to Phil. With the weight of experience he had come to realize that she’d been in her late fifties when he was a child, her sixties when he was a teen, and now was close to, if not in, her nineties. Her hair was white and surprisingly lush, her glasses were thick but clean, and she was wearing a housecoat probably purchased when punk rock was first sweeping through England.
“Ms. Josie,” Phil greeted. He spared a moment to contemplate how odd it was, that amongst the temporal abnormalities that made up Night Vale, Ms. Josie seemed to have aged in perfect step with the external world.
“It’s Old Woman Josie now,” she replied. “The Angels told me I wasn’t fooling anybody going by ‘Ms.’. Come on in out of the heat.” She held the door open as they all shuffled in. Two more of the beings were in the living room, watching the television more loudly than was comfortable. Another trio of them were at the kitchen table playing gin, cards grossly undersized in their massive hands. Inside it was the blessed cool of truly powerful central air. “Would you boys like some lemonade? I’m afraid the Angels ate all my cookies, but I’m certain I have something else lying around for a snack.”
“Lemonade sounds lovely, ma’am,” Banner said. He had not managed the trick of not sweating in the desert heat, and looked like he could use some liquids. To Phil he asked in an undertone, “It’s not poisoned or something, right?”
Phil shook his head and followed Old Woman Josie into her kitchen to lend a hand. “The Angels are new since I was here last.”
“Oh, lots of things are new,” she told him with a condescending pat. “Did you know the green grocer has vegetables now? I’ve been eating nothing but radishes for the last several weeks and it’s done me a world of good.” She poured three glasses of lemonade out of a huge tupperware pitcher as she talked.
“And the subway,” Phil prompted. Her mental faculties hadn’t slipped much, especially considering her age, but she was not as on-the-ball as he remembered.
“Oh, yes. It’s so nice to see such a progressive initiative in town. I was getting pretty tired of Desert Bluffs lording their monorail over us.” Phil took a polite sip of the lemonade. It was brackish and sweet with a viscerally painful acidity, as though the lemon juice was eating away at the impurities tainting his being. Banner made a face after his first sip, running his tongue over his teeth and frowning. Phil shrugged apologetically.
“We’re actually here because I was under the impression you or the Angels might know what was... beneath... the Subway development. My returning was... unplanned.”
Josie got very close to Phil before speaking in what she probably thought was a whisper. “Nobody ever plans to return. Sometimes you just get called back.”
“Do you think the Angels might have some insight? I hate to go to the City Council without an offering of some sort; they tend to frown on that sort of thing.”
“Isn’t that the truth. Well why don’t you ask them? I’ll put something in the oven for you boys.” Josie gestured towards the trio of Angels playing gin. In unison they put their cards down and directed some of their multitude eyes towards Phil, Barton, and Banner.
Barton fidgeted. Banner looked caught. Phil felt his innards twitch at the scrutiny, itching to become his outards in a bid for safety. Phil had never been properly educated on how to identify or address members of the Heavenly Rank, but he tried a respectful nod and as professionalism as he could muster. “Excuse me, Erikas, I was wondering if you could help me. I’m looking for any information on the being behind the Subway development, and why it might be kidnapping subway cars.”
The shortest Angel opened its mouth, which was decidedly full of words, and a sound not unlike a herd of pygmy goats being hurled into the maw of a combine issued forth.
“From beneath you it devours,” the tallest Angel translated.
“Did you—” Banner frowned. “Is it quoting Doctor Who?”
Barton shook his head, “Buffy.”
“You know how fond Erika is of television,” Josie told them placidly, oven mitts in hand.
The Angel which was neither tall nor short stretched and re-mantled its wings and put down its cards in a decisive gesture. “You are unequipped to comprehend all of that which is below, mortal,” The Angel said.
“I don’t need to comprehend all of it; I merely need to know if there is a way to seal it back from where it came.”
“And if there is a way?” The Angel which was neither tall nor short asked, it’s voice echoing as though it was in the echo chamber as large as the Earth itself.
The short Angel emitted a sound like trains breaking on rails made of the bones of long-dead leviathans.
“Where there is a will there is an or,” the tall Angel translated.
“Does that guy communicate solely in TV quotes?” Barton asked.
“Erika is correct,” Phil agreed, “If there is a way, we will make it happen. On my honor as an Eternal Scout.” Phil waved his hand in a gesture which left effervescent streaks in the form of an ancient seal in the air.
The Angel which was neither tall nor short narrowed its multitude eyes at Phil and spoke. “This being would not be here without invite; if you find the one who plays at controlling the ancient one, remedies might be sought. Find who is responsible and the Town Council may be sated and spurred to action.”
The short Angel burped like a howling banshee.
“Allons-y,” the tall Angel translated.
“That was Doctor Who,” Barton told Banner with a pointed finger. The tall Angel smiled at Barton, its mouth full to brimming with needle-sharp teeth and appropriated words, twisted to fit its tongue.
Chapter 10: Penguin Carpaccio
Getting the right sort of help is half the battle.
“I’d like to get some readings on the subway car if possible; I noticed some... thing gripping the car while we were chanting, and it might have left some energy signatures that could give some clue as to the — ancient one? Is that what we’re going with? It’s origins.”
“There’s a general ban on a lot of the technology normally used in scientific discovery. There is one scientist in town who might have what you need.”
“I thought you said all the people who’d tried to study Night Vale had died.”
“Or gone spectacularly insane,” Barton added.
“This one is an anomaly. He’s survived up to now, and from what I’ve heard isn’t any more unhinged than your average scientist.”
Phil pulled his mental map up on his palm again for a consult. Barton craned over his shoulder to look at the realigned blood vessels and freckles which made up his approximation of the town. Phil had heard enough waxing poetical about Carlos that he felt almost like he knew the man. That said, he only had an approximate knowledge of where the man lived and worked. He sighed. “The radio station is on the way into town from here. We should probably just stop in and see if we can catch Cecil before he leaves for the night.”
Phil carefully did not look at the Angel, still swinging on its swing, as they left Ms. Josie’s porch, trudging into the sweltering heat of late afternoon. They walked quietly for a few minutes, a petulant cloud of dust rising in their wake. Phil frowned, contemplating the inevitable discussion with the Town Council, the possibilities for what this creature was. He carefully did not think about the endgame of their little foray; the fact that outsiders, once drawn in, did not leave as anything other than corpses and spirits.
“I mean, I get that there’s some trans-dimensional Satan being dragging subway cars into the southwest and maybe trying to eat them, but you’re freaked out by something more than just that. What’s up?” Barton said out of nowhere, as though he had been conducting a silent conversation up until that point.
Phil glanced at Barton and then Banner, his shoulders dropping almost imperceptibly. “This is Night Vale,” he said, the hint of a concerned frown crinkling his brown. “There’s— something about here doesn’t like to let people go once they’re here. You tend to stay or die.” The statement sank like a fly into bread dough.
“Yeah, but is that—” Banner began to ask.
“It’s just how it is,” Phil cut him off, frustrated. “There is no cause and there is no reason; that is just how it is.” The green sparks in Banner’s eyes met the green sparks in Phil’s, and subsided.
“But you got out. You grew up here but you got out,” Clint said.
Banner cleaned his glasses. “How?”
“Natives... There’s a window where some of us can get out. Most people put down roots, but some of us get out.” They walked by the High School, just letting out of after school riflery and munitions practices.
Children streamed by with adorably oversized automatic weapons bouncing on shoulders that hadn’t yet filled out. It was as though all the color which should have been in the harsh, monotone scrubland the town sat on had been funneled into the teens in all their variability. They were every color imaginable, scaled and feathered and furred, with extra appendages and missing appendages and all manner of non-human modifications. They had wings and claws, they were too small and too large, and some were neither human nor mutant, though one could not identify their species, so new and unformed were they.
Phil looked fondly at the passing adolescents and was ignored in turn. “I think the wanderlust is something that only affects those of us who could pass in the outside world. I’m not sure how it works,” he added before Banner could question him.
“What, so you’ve never come back home?” Bruce asked. Phil shook his head. “Not once?”
“That was the deal,” Phil replied. It still baffled him, even almost thirty years out, that the concept that there were certain deals which were not to be broken was not implicitly understood by everyone.
“Look, not to be shortsighted, but we got bigger fish to fry before we can leave,” Clint said, observing and cataloguing teenagers. “The Angel was right; where there’s a will there’s an or. We’ll tackle how to leave when the time comes. Let’s deal with whatever got us here in the first place.”
The next block held a squat, adobe-style building with a radio spire rising stark against the colorless background. The lights were still on, so Cecil or one of the interns was still in. Phil nodded towards the building, and they all crossed to the door.
Phil pushed the door open and sighed into the rush of super-cooled air. An intern was at the front desk butchering penguins with a practiced air. She was wrist-deep in the chest cavity of one, pulling out the heart and lungs with a familiar twist, and separating the organs. A flicker of Barton’s eyebrow was the only indication that he was discomfited. Bruce winced. The intern gave them a bored look, flipping her skinning knife to begin divesting the bird of its outer layer of blubber.
“Is Cecil still in?” Phil asked.
She nodded, indicating the door behind her. She flipped the skinned bird, cutting along its spine and disjointing its leg and thigh with a sickening, cracking squelch. Phil ignored the pile of penguins, most with broken necks or backs, in line for processing behind the desk.
“What’s she going to do with those?” Barton asked with an air of morbid curiosity. Blood was seeping down into a drain in the center of the room.
“Eat them, I imagine. Fresh penguin isn’t very common out here.” Phil lay his palm against the blacked-out window looking in at the recording studio. There weren’t any vibrations, so he opened the door. Cecil was poring over a set of tiny scrolls under a magnifying glass of the sort used in repairing antique watches, thumb running over the script. “Cecil? Is now a good time?” Phil asked.
Cecil’s whole body rippled in surprise, and he turned, magnifying glass swinging away. “Is that a Coulson I hear?” Cecil’s mouth curved into a radiant smile, his hand reaching towards Phil. His eyes were the sightless milky blue of severe cataracts, and his teeth were pointed and sparkling white.
“It is. Your intern said you were still in.” Phil reached out and grasped Cecil’s hand, earning an even larger smile at the contact.
“Said?” Cecil was asked with a tone of dismay. “My, that’s unfortunate. She was earning her Silent and Taciturn badge.”
“Well, she didn’t say, so much as nod,” Banner corrected.
“Oh, excellent,” Cecil replied. “I must admit, it’s made communication a bit difficult, but she is on of the longest survivors in the position and I’d hate for her to lose her tongue over something like that. But Coulson, who is this deliciously handsome outsider?” Cecil asked, sightless eyes directed at Banner.
“I’m delicious too,” Barton groused.
“Don’t even joke,” Phil warned. “This is Doctor Banner. The idiot over there is Clint Barton.”
Cecil hummed appreciatively. “Doctor Banner. It’s as though my shipment of scientists with luscious locks has finally started coming in.”
Banner’s forehead wrinkled as his hand moved unconsciously to touch his hair.
Phil grinned back at Cecil’s infectious enthusiasm. It actually was infectious, which was one of the reasons he had earned the title of Voice of Night Vale; town morale had been at an all-time low, and thus broadcast enthusiasm had been deemed necessary for municipal cohesion. “Now, now, what would Carlos think of you lusting after another scientific mind?” Phil chided.
Cecil sighed, overly dramatic. “You are right, of course. But really, what brings you back? Nobody comes back.”
“What is the question. I’m sorry that this isn’t a social call, but I was hoping you could show us where Carlos was doing his experiments. Doctor Banner here could use some equipment to study the phenomena that brought us in, and I’m afraid we’re woefully unarmed to be going around downtown in broad moonlight.”
“Armed?” Banner asked.
“Moonlight?” Barton asked.
“Experiments?” Cecil asked eagerly, gripping Phil’s hand tighter in his excitement. He seemed to gain some measure of visual perception from the contact. “Your scientist wants to explore the outer bounds of knowledge with my dearest Carlos?” Cecil asked.
“Uh, yes?” Banner replied.
“Marvelous. Let’s get you fellows kitted out for cruise night and head over to the lab.” Cecil changed the hold he had on Phil’s hand so that he could grip down the other man’s forearm and be led from the room. Phil obliged. It was unclear who directed them down to the basement, as Phil and Cecil seemed to move as one in an oddly concerted progression. “So how did you come to be sheppard to these outsiders?” Cecil asked in a conversational manner as they descended the basement stairs.
“Agent Barton is an asset I’ve worked with since...”
“Ninety-nine,” Barton supplied.
“And Doctor Banner is part of a superhero team in New York that I’ve been assigned to recently.”
“Since the Battle, I imagine,” Cecil said. The capital letter was clear. “The reverberations from that could be felt even here.” Cecil reached out and flicked a switch which turned on lights across a basement stretching wider than the expanse of the floor above it. One wall was gun storage with ammunition below it. The opposite wall was food, batteries, and other emergency supplies. At the far end of the basement was an elaborate altar. “I’m afraid we’re a little light on body armor at the moment. The High School raided us for some of the more hard to find sizes.” Cecil let go of Phil’s arm and leaned against a structural support with relaxed ease.
“It’s cruise night you said?” Phil asked, sorting through a crate of body armor.
“Mmhm,” Cecil hummed agreement.
“Sir?” Barton’s question was implicit and expansive.
“Full body armor, as much armament as you’d like,” Phil told him. “You too, Doctor. It’ll help you blend in.”
Phil unbuttoned his dress shirt and put some kevlar on under it, and followed that with a pair of shooting glasses and a helmet. Barton chose an assault rifle and a scope, a pair of handguns, and an assortment of combat knives, buckling on some protective equipment after a raised eyebrow from Phil.
Banner was arguing half-heartedly about whether the combat shotgun was really necessary for him when a trembling in the ground stopped them all. Cecil went straight and still, sightless eyes glowing with an unearthly light like chain lightning, and bioluminescence, and the northern lights.
“Report,” Coulson demanded. Banner was breathing deeply, and Clint was crouched low so as not to lose his feet.
Cecil’s head swung sluggish towards Coulson and he blinked his luminous eyes as though in a stupor. The shaking stopped with a massive crash, too close for comfort. “They’ve come for you,” Cecil replied, breathless. Cecil sounded scared.
Clint rushed up out of the basement before Coulson could do anything to stop him. Glancing between Bruce and the now empty stairway, Coulson made the split-second decision to follow his asset. Even if the Hulk got loose in town, it wouldn’t be anything Night Vale was unprepared for, and Clint had no clue what he was wading into out there. Coulson followed his asset.
Leaving Cecil, eyes glowing, skin much paler than it should be, and sweaty, leaning against a building support. “Is anybody—” Cecil began, sounding almost pathetic. He was unused to being left places, and after receiving a mass transmission regarding something happening in downtown he was feeling a little shaky.
“I’m still here,” Banner offered.
“Oh.” Cecil sounded somewhat mollified, though still smaller than his normally resonant voice usually allowed. Without being asked, Bruce fit his arm along Cecil’s and gripped his hand. “Oh thank you. One should never be without a scientist, if you and my lovely Carlos are breed standards.” Cecil blinked the last remnant of otherworldly glow from his eyes, and gazed sightless but adoring into Bruce’s face. At least... Bruce thought his eyes were sightless; they carried an odd sort of perceptive quality for organs which were outwardly nonfunctional. “I do believe the hubbub has quieted a bit. Perhaps we should join the others up top.”
“You think?” Bruce asked, wisely leery.
“I am a reporter and I can’t very well get the scoop cowering in the basement like a victim of the nuclear winter.”
Cecil felt almost like an extension of Bruce’s own body as they walked up the stairs, the other man never missing a step. The penguins and accompanying gore had been conspicuously and suspiciously cleaned from the front room of the broadcasting building when they exited, and the intern was not in evidence.
Outside it was evident what had caused the rumbling, the ground shaking, and the earth-shattering crash. A New York Subway M-line car was resting with its nose just far enough in the Moonlight All-Night Diner to have shattered its plate glass windows and bent in two of the huge window frames.
Based on the marks of destruction passing diagonally through an entire intersection and a subway-car-sized hole across the street in what had been a rather innocuous abandoned lot sometimes used for the sacrifices during reading week at the community college, it had erupted with considerably more force than the car on which Bruce, Clint, and Coulson had traveled. Parts of what looked like a human-sized praying mantis which had been in the path of the subway car were splashed and scattered across the intersection.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the whole situation was that there wasn’t a crowd gathering. A few balaclava-clad police people were strolling around with their assault weapons cradled like old friends, glaring at the few pedestrians and diners expressing some curiosity.
Bruce surveyed the landscape, finding neither Clint nor Coulson in evidence. Cecil’s grip abruptly tightened, and he dragged them both behind a convenient mailbox as a classic cadillac cruised by. Sprays of automatic gunfire were shot almost casually from the vehicle. Bruce’s breath came faster, his heart speeding up. Cecil’s hand moved to his chin and squeezed. “Oh. Science did break you just a bit,” he said, almost to himself. Cecil forced Bruce’s eyes to meet his own, blind and pale, and Bruce felt a bit of the Hulk’s muddled rage and fear drain out of him as the world went abruptly blank and calm. “There there, Doctor,” Cecil crooned. “Didn’t you say something about visiting that visionary of science in our fair city; Carlos?”
“Shouldn’t we—” Bruce began to ask, pointing with their joined hands towards the subway car, now that the hail of gunfire seemed to have ceased. Clint peeked out the end of the subway car and waved an arrow, fletching out, as a sign that things were okay.
“Nonsense. No time to waste in pursuit of science. Just keep an eye out for those classic cars. I know you’re not from around here but cruise night can be a bit of a hazard, what with young canids getting their jollies by letting loose on populated city streets.” Cecil chuckled.
“You mean... kids?” Bruce asked.
A trio of hooded figures hummed discordantly from within the diner.
Cecil patted Bruce’s hand. “If you like. The lab is just past the convention center by Big Rico’s. We could get a slice if you’re hungry,” Cecil told him, sounding a bit eager. Cecil seemed to have a thing for scientists. They struck off in a direction away from the diner, and this time it was definitely Cecil directing them. He seemed to gain some measure of visual perception through... Bruce’s brain trailed off, beginning to come to terms with the fact that everything might not be explained, and indeed, might not be explainable. Cecil guided them around a traffic accident, both cars abandoned, one with obvious blood splatter remaining in the passenger-side seat. A human-sized praying mantis stood in the center of the intersection, waving its front legs like the director of an imperceivable orchestra.
Big Rico’s was labeled with a garishly bright neon sign which blinked in a nauseating, hypnotic pattern. Cecil tugged him away from it impatiently, crossing behind the building, stepping over a low berm, and knocking on a two-story structure with heavy metal doors. He waited an impatient moment before shoving open the door and walking in. “Sometimes the lure of science distracts Carlos from the more mundane tasks in life like opening doors and such,” he explained with a wave of his hand. Raising his voice he called, “Carlos? I’ve brought you a playmate.”
A man in a lab coat came down the somewhat rusted but mostly functional stairwell, glossy waves of dark hair just barely flecked with silver flopping and flowing with each step. “I’m sorry. I was running some calculations. Did you say a playmate? R2D2 seems to be doing—”
Carlos frowned at Bruce. Bruce frowned at Carlos.
“It’s not just me that thinks we know each other, right?” Bruce asked.
“Um...” Carlos replied. Then his eyes got big. He pointed his finger at Bruce. “The JPL satellite campus REU, 1992,” he said almost shouting.
“Oh my god,” Bruce replied. “You were the guy who wouldn’t stop making jokes about the ‘satellite’ campus for the Jet Propulsion Labs.”
Carlos blushed dark and embarrassed. “Hopefully my sense of humor has improved since then.”
“Bruce Banner,” Bruce offered his free hand.
“Doctor?” Carlos asked, eyebrows raised in a politely inquisitive expression. He took Bruce’s proffered hand and shook.
“PhD in 2000,” Bruce replied.
“Carlos. I published under CG Guiterrez.”
Bruce mouthed the initials and surname to himself before snapping. “Theories on accessible quantum reality states!” he almost shouted. Carlos broke into a huge sunny grin. Cecil basked in that grin feeling its warmth down to his toes. He settled with a sigh on a convenient stool, dropping Bruce’s hand and reaching out for Carlos. Almost unconsciously Carlos stretched out his own hand, intertwining their fingers so Cecil could see what was going on.
It only took a moment for Bruce and Carlos to go from suspicious strangers to enthusiastic colleagues in a rapid-fire exchange of papers and citations and half-verbalized theories. Cecil sighed happily and let the jargon wash over him, the timbre of delighted, unfettered intellectual exchange a rare pleasure to feel tickling his ears. The tone of the conversation changed abruptly as Carlos seemed to come to some conclusion; Cecil began paying attention once more.
“I really have to recommend against performing any science with probably a fifty kilometer radius of the town center. When I got here I was part of a whole scientific team,” he added with a warning note.
“What happened to them?” Bruce asked, brow furrowed.
“The ones who haven’t been sucked into dimensional rifts or killed by wildlife are gathered at a house in one of the sub-divisions, which doesn’t appear to exist.”
“How does it—”
Carlos put a hand on Bruce’s arm, his voice dropping to a low tone. “I have to warn you, in the strongest language, that you do not want to begin thinking about the house that doesn’t seem to exist.”
Carlos gripped Bruce’s arm in a way which must have been painful. “Do. Not. Ask. Don’t theorize. Don’t. It’s probably dangerous enough us talking about physics journals together. We should get back on track regarding your hypothesis.”
Cecil glowed with pride. He actually glowed a bit, which seemed to discomfort Bruce, but which Carlos had grown rather used to. Carlos had gotten into the swing of Night Vale with such effortless grace that sometimes it took Cecil’s breath away that only a few generous handfuls of months previous, Carlos had been a stranger in a lab coat with uncommonly prestigious follicular development and perfectly spaced white teeth. Cecil traced the lines in Carlos’ palm as the two scientists worked out a plan for exploration of the intellectual unknown in his little town.
“Cecil?” Carlos asked, no longer sounding worried when the other man would drift off in an adoring sort of thought-space adjacent to worshipful meditation.
“Hmm?” Cecil replied, meeting the pads of their fingertips together and tugging lightly so their fingerprints melded together.
“We’re going to go do some experiments. Do you want to come with us? We can drop you back at the station if you’d like.”
“I could come with you while you do science?” Cecil asked, voice rising an octave and free hand pressing over his heart.
Carlos rolled his eyes fondly. “Of course. It could be pretty boring, though.”
“Oh, never,” Cecil assured him. “I would be honored to be part of scientific exploration.”
When Phil got out of the station building he followed Barton in a beeline for the crashed subway car. It was smoking and sparking, and the dismembered limbs of a hapless praying mantis were still twitching with the phantoms of life, slicing scythe-like through the wavering afternoon heat. Phil hurried to the Moonlight All-Night Diner to make sure there weren’t any severe injuries. Representatives of the Town Council had appeared at the end of the street, walking in a shuffling tandem.
“Talk to me, Barton,” Phil ordered, knocking the remaining sheet glass out of one of the diner windows and climbing through.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” Barton replied, the hint of a chuckle in the statement.
“Phil?” A familiar voice asked.
“Son of Coul?”
Phil sighed and stared through the cracked and dirty windshield of the subway car. Sitwell stood in the center of the car, legs braced wide, the Destroyer prototype charged and at the ready. Natasha was crouched and ready just behind him. Thor stood on one of the rows of seats, hammer touched to the roof of the car, sending sheets of electricity down the metal walls. Behind them, an entire SHIELD team in full combat gear was spread in an engagement formation. Sitwell tipped his sunglasses down his nose to give Phil a quick once-over. He shook pebbles of safety glass out of the cuffs of his pants and crunched towards the door.
The SHIELD tactical team wasted no time with the doors, elbowing the already cracked and broken windows out and climbing to the dubious safety of Night Vale’s evening. Phil frowned at the leader, moving more stiffly than seemed usual. He nodded at Phil and raised his balaclava to rest on his forehead.
“Ramos?” Phil asked, disbelieving.
Ramos smirked and dropped to a knee. He took a pinch of the powdery dust that served as topsoil in the desert, and put it on his tongue. “Mmm. Just like I remember.” Phil could smell what Ramos was tasting; cinnamon and pepper, mesquite and rock, and the parched-dry flavor that coated life in the desert, inside and out. Ramos had to be at least seventy, still limber for his age and too comfortable with guns to look anything but at home with a prototype energy weapon cradled against his chest. “Sitwell said he needed a team qualified to go after you. We were the best ones for the job.”
Juliard, Jeanine, and a few other current and former SHIELD agents who had grown up in Night Vale, peeled up their balaclavas. “We thought this might be a one-way trip, so we figured the only folks who should come are those that might want to stay,” Jeanine said with a shrug.
“One way nothing; we’re hauling your ass out of here. You have reports that I’m not covering for you,” Sitwell told him, powering down the Destroyer with a flick of his thumb. Jasper looked casual but he’d taken in the area in only a few glances, and had flanked Phil in a position to fire on the City Council members if the need arose. Natasha had slipped out and was giving Barton a once-over, presumably to ensure all his parts were still attached in the proper configuration. Thor was surveying the town with a confident air.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Phil admonished. “Rosa—”
“Will be fine for the few days this takes to get settled,” Sitwell said with a finality that ended the discussion.
“This might not—”
“Phil.” Sitwell gripped Phil’s arm. “I didn’t leave you in twenty years of field world. I didn’t leave you when you fucking died. I didn’t leave when that little fucking brainsucker almost gave me an aneurism. I’m not about to leave you here, in unknown circumstances, without backup. We’ll get through this together, and we’ll fuck up whatever ruined my afternoon, and we’ll burn its house to the ground. Do you hear me?”
Phil allowed himself a satisfied smirk. “I hear you.”
“You ladies going to jaw all afternoon or are we gonna fuck up some extradimensional shithead’s day?” Ramos asked. He checked the sky which had darkened ominously. “Night,” he amended.
“Call it,” Natasha told him. It sounded like a command but he took it as the ceding of power which the statement represented. She was shadowing Barton closely, probably anxious about having lost track of him again.
“Where’s Banner?” Phil asked.
“Went off with the blind guy to catch up with his scientist buddy.”
The City Council had begun a hum within the Moonlight All-Night Diner behind the cash register; the sort which preceded the handing down of edicts or judgements. The hair on the back of Phil’s neck rose in clear warning. The chant faded to the hiss of an old phonograph machine, needle running around and around on the bare surface of its turntable without a record or cylinder to give it life.
A particularly jubilant shootout half way across town broke some of the sombre feel of the gathering. A reedy voice of a young man or an old boy threaded its way from the empty hissing of the City Council.
“The one eternal has come to rise and lay low that which too has risen,” the voice said, though it was impossible to say from which council member it issued.
“The one eternal will explain himself,” another voice as old and parched as the desert sands added.
Natasha raised her eyebrow at him, clearly asking if he wanted her to make the council members disappear. He gave her the barest flicker of an eyelid which signaled that she should let him handle this. “My team and I were brought here against our will.”
The hissing rose in pitch, communicating displeasure. “The Ancient One will be dealt with,” Phil continued, dropping to a knee in an attempt at placating the hooded figures. The pitch of the hissing did not subside. “I have reason to believe it is being controlled by someone. Do you have any idea who might be forcing the Ancient One upon us?”
The hooded figures consulted one another for a pregnant moment. “Tiny Town,” they shrieked in tandem, sounding simultaneously outraged and horrified.
“The guys who killed the Apache Tracker?” Jeanine asked, stepping forward. She dropped to a knee when the hooded figures turned their attention to her. “Do you really think they’re up to the job?”
Jasper and Ramos snorted chuckles at her unintentional pun.
“We require a sacrifice,” the hooded figures intoned.
Phil paled. He had gotten out of the habit of carrying the proper items on his person after his first few years. Luckily, Ramos stepped in. “I got this covered.” He held up a handful of colorful plastic figures. “One per, no-faces,” he warned. The council members cooed over the happy meal figurines and picked each of them up before choosing one apiece.
“The sacrifice is made. The journey may begin. May you bathe in the blood of our enemies and stamp out their ability to reproduce with the greatest prejudice and the heaviest standard issue combat boot,” they sang in the ritual melody.
Everyone let out a sigh when the hooded figures turned and left to use the Moonlight All-Night Diner’s restroom.
“What now?” Natasha asked.
“I would visit this ‘Tiny Town’ and smite those which wish Philip ill.”
“I need to check in on Banner and Cecil. Sitwell: can you take lead on a trip to the arcade and fun park?” Phil asked. Sitwell nodded. “Ramos, I’m counting on you to keep everyone in one piece.”
“I just found you, I’m not letting you two out of my sight,” Natasha stated, glancing between Barton and Phil.
“Lets go find Banner,” Phil said. The groups split, wary of gunfire from cruise night.
A few more chapters to wrap things up. In the home stretch. Thanks for all the kind comments and thoughts.
Chapter 12: Bitter words
Science, bowling pins, and curses
The walk back to the trailer park was more pleasant in the cool of the desert evening. The moon hung over head, twice -- one a crescent, the other nearly full. “Should I worry about that?” Barton asked, pointing at first the crescent, then the nearly full moon. Phil shook his head silently.
The scientists had floodlights set up around the subway car, which had received some mail while they were gone; a cease-and-desist order from the City regarding unlawful occupation of a trailer park lot, and a flyer for Big Rico’s. Cecil was parked inside the subway car holding a pair of diodes and chattering happily. Doctor Banner had acquired a lab coat at some point, and a pair of eerily similar curly, glossy-haired heads topping white coats made circuits of the car, running cables in a complex patchwork and attaching them to some sort of sensor equipment held in a rolling suitcase.
“Doctor Banner?” Phil called. One head popped up. Even in the darkness Phil recognized Bruce once he had more distinguishing features than hair and a white coat. The other head and attached body leapt behind a stone bench for cover at the sound of Phil’s voice. Good instincts, he thought. “What’s the progress?”
Banner made what Phil thought of as his ‘attempting to translate science’ face. It usually looked as though he was constipated. “We’re attempting to get an energetic frequency we can use to determine the origin of the being that dragged us in. There’s a lot of interference coming from the town in general, though.”
“That’s pretty normal,” Carlos the scientist noted. “I’m using some of my standard noise reduction techniques to get a signal. It shouldn’t take too long now.”
The periscopes of neighboring trailers were studiously looking away from the scientific endeavours to maintain plausible deniability. “Coulson -- they’re having me help. With an experiment!” Cecil cried happily from inside the subway car.
Carlos looked a little embarrassed. “Cecil is actually a significant source of biphasic radio signals and background electromagnetic noise. I can use him to tune the sensors.” Carlos shrugged helplessly.
Banner checked the rolling-suitcase-instrumentation and nodded. “We’ll need to cobble together something portable. Can we utilize satellites from in town?”
Carlos shrugged. “It depends on the weather.”
“Clear skies through tomorrow night, then sun strikes. Upper 90’s,” Phil supplied.
“Then yes, probably.” Carlos and Banner put their heads together to discuss sensor construction.
“So...” Barton said, sidling up to Phil. “Sun strikes.”
“Hm?” Phil asked.
“That sounds... terrible. And deadly.”
Phil shrugged. “Good for the Pulsar Development institute.”
Sitwell had felt the moment that something other than the subway tracks ran along the outside of their subway car; the moment that something dark and ancient and hungry began questing around their metal skin like an octopus around the shell of a clam. Like the clam, Sitwell did not know from which direction the attack might come, but knew that after that attack his world would never be the same.
The rest of the assembled group seemed to feel it as well, shifting and hunching as though against an unseen assault. The Night Vale team was crouched, a chunk of rock at the center of their formation, murmuring sub-sonically. Black Widow shivered almost delicately, a tremor running down her spine and straightening it as she readied for battle. Thor frowned, a snaking tendril of electricity working its way from his hammer to wreath his head.
“Steady,” Sitwell warned. They had to let the thing, which had taken the missing Avengers along with a full load of civilians, get a good enough grip on them so they could get to wherever the first subway car had landed but not so good a grip that it couldn’t be broken before they were dragged down and consumed.
The dark passenger Phil had gifted to Sitwell stirred in agitation, wiggling in his stomach before moving to huddle in his bile duct. The sensation was still unfamiliar, but no longer so unpleasant. It often gave warning of impending danger or atmospheric shifts. Phil had claimed he should be able to control the inkblot’s traversal of his internal systems, but that was well beyond Sitwell. He gripped the prototype Destoyer weapon and girded himself for what was to come.
Their car had jolted and juddered and began running on tracks unfamiliar to everyone. “Thor?” he suggested. The demigod raised his hammer, the air crackling with electricity as he did so. Sitwell’s dark passenger wriggled with displeasure and alarm. How he knew the wriggling was displeasure and alarm was still beyond his expertise. The team’s murmuring became audible, unified in a way that made barbershop quartets seem disharmonious, and the world shook and exploded.
And landed them in a small desert town which Sitwell had never visited but which was familiar nonetheless. They found Phil, or Phil (and Barton) found them, and he had a team he trusted backing him up, and everything was going to turn out okay. Sitwell had a vague idea where the Desert Flower Arcade and Fun Complex was, and much to his continued surprise, the demi-god, a deadly Russian spy, and a team composed exclusively of senior agents with more experience both in the field and in this particular town than him, seemed inclined to follow him. The building they wanted was illuminated by neon lights in the shape of bowling pins, and letters reading “ rt Flower arc & un Complex”. The front door was boarded up, but the windows were left unprotected. Jeanine casually elbowed one in and tumbled through it, finding a light easily enough.
The rest of the team climbed through the broken window as soon as they had some light. The complex had been abandoned and closed up after the unceremonious death of the Apache Tracker. The bowling alleys were set and ready as though their players had stepped away for just a moment, all the name cards reading ‘THEY ARE COMING’. The arcade was illuminated by the flow of lights around games, garish and disorienting in the dark. The shoe rental area had been looted of all but men’s size sevens, which sat in row upon row, unwanted and unstolen.
“This is eerie,” Sitwell murmured. Ramos shrugged. Jeanine nodded agreement. “Any idea where these little people are hiding out?”
“Little people refers to those suffering from congenital abnormalities leading to dwarfism. These are the tiniest beings ever to display advanced engineering and warmongering techniques. I don’t believe anybody is even certain whether they are people in any classic sense of the word,” Juliard corrected.
“They have not made their grievances known to your people?” Thor asked with a thunderous frown. The Night Vale team shook its head. “Then perhaps this be a problem best resolved through the application of statecraft!” Thor proclaimed. Sitwell’s eyebrows went up. “If that proves unmoving we may yet call our fury down upon the tiny assailants.” He raised his hammer for emphasis.
“Are you feeling all right, big guy?” Sitwell asked.
“Verily I am well. ‘Tis merely that I have been told the diplomatic solution often results in less damage to the small folk's property. Miss Potts has also stressed that battles won with words are as heartily regaled as those won through right of arms, and thus I have sought to practice in this arena.”
Juliard looked like his brain was trying to swallow something larger than itself. Sitwell sympathised. “Then by all means. Feel free to practice.” Sitwell swept his arm towards the bowling lanes.
“They’re behind the bowling pin retrieval area of lane five,” Jeanine informed Thor.
Thor slipped on the slick surface while walking down lane five towards where the pins disappeared, but didn’t fall. The rest of the team spread out, conventional and extra senses straining for indications of trouble. Sitwell approached behind Thor, managing not to slip and slide. Thor was uncommonly poorly sized to fit into the pin retrieval area, but he forced his large form through it and stumbled out onto the ledge overlooking the tiny city and the tiny war party encamped at the bottom of a several foot drop which must have seemed to the tiny army like a mountain range to rival the Rockies and the Andes and the Himalaya.
Sitwell had a bit of difficulty maneuvering the Destroyer prototype weapon through the close quarters, but he scooted out on the ledge with Thor in time to see a warning shot fired from the encampment. Thor batted it harmlessly away and it exploded in the distance, over the tiny city, which was actually not distant at all.
“Tiny warriors, desist; I come to discourse with you,” Thor commanded, and his voice rolled like thunder through the valley which extended they knew not how far. Tiny sirens went off within the city. Tiny cries went up from the battle encampment.
What followed was a one-sided conversation between Thor and an entire army, most likely represented by a general or admiral of some sort. From it, Sitwell gathered that the inhabitants of Tiny Town had been in some way involved with summoning the Ancient One which had been involved in the appearance of the Subway in Night Vale as well as the Subway-car-napping, but that at some point between summoning the Ancient One and Phil’s team getting kidnapped, something had gone terribly wrong.
“They believe the people of this town have turned their tethered beast against them,” Thor said with a frown. “The people of this town have done no such thing.”
“Perhaps we did it unknowingly -- didn’t so much turn it against them as unleash it on everything in its path,” Jeanine suggested.
“They did kill the Apache Tracker. Maybe he—” Juliard began.
Ramos cut him off with a raised finger. “If you say ‘had real Indian Magics’ I’m gonna slap you so hard your kids’ll have red cheeks.”
“—is involved somehow,” Juliard finished lamely.
Thor frowned in his ‘listening’ face. “They claim a single death would not be powerful enough to have changed their metaphysical workings.” He listened for another long moment. “They claim only a powerful curse could have such an effect.”
The blood drained from Juliard’s face, his normally dark complexion looking only sickly.
“What,” Sitwell stated more than asked.
“Cecil— The Apache Tracker died saving Carlos the Scientist. Don’t look at me like that -- I had the week off and was listening to the broadcasts.”
“Leave us not in suspense!” Thor cried. Thor had strong feelings about storytelling and pacing.
“Cecil cursed Tiny Town.”
“Do you think—” Sitwell began.
“The Voice of Night Vale laid a curse on these tiny bastards,” Ramos said grimly. His eyes were like twin white dwarf stars, burning with knowledge at the end of their life. “That isn’t something you just brush off.”
“He didn’t really mean to,” Jeanine reasoned. “I’m not certain Cecil takes his ceremonial duties for the city entirely seriously,” she confided to Sitwell.
“Some honest reporting has done nothing but good for Night Vale. Not like Desert Bluffs,” Juliard retorted.
Sitwell had a brief moment to think on how naive and innocent he had been, thinking he was leading the rabble; he was just the idiot in the front. He felt his dark passenger wiggle out of the safety of his bile duct to go floating up to his stomach, through the stomach lining into his abdominal aorta, there catching a swift ride up to his carotid. “Jasper?”
The voice came from the dark passenger, cuddled up against bundles of nerves and floating in the rich meaty broth of oxygenated blood so close to his brain. Sitwell made a little surprised noise.
“I have the rest of the team and we’re finished at the subway cars for the night. We’re regrouping at my mother’s house. Any news?”
I wonder if it can only hear what I’m saying, or if it broadcasts my thoughts, Sitwell thought.
“It is telepathic in origin,” a voice that was sounding more and more like Phil replied.
“Goddamn it stop reading my mind!” Sitwell cursed, startling everyone else, including the tiny army which set off some tiny incendiaries in alarm.
Chapter 13: Computavore
Phil had no memories of his mother, as an adult. He had left home at eighteen and never looked back for more than a passing glance. He didn’t have regrets, but he did have occasional pangs of sadness that he couldn’t share his big failures and his small achievements with the drop of his blood left living from the pool of kinship that had once existed.
Cecil had told him that his mother had moved to a bunker in one of the housing sub-divisions to be closer to the municipal computing cores, and to take advantage of their impeccable atmospheric control system. First and foremost, Phil’s mother had been a parent. As was the style when Phil was a child, his father had brought home the bacon (sometimes literally, if the boxes being moved from one truck to the other in the middle of the desert contained consumables adequate for humans) while his mother had tended the house, made ritual sacrifices, and cared for the children.
Like many new parents, at the birth of her first child she swore to devote all of herself to the small tender human she found herself responsible for. When Philip the first was indefinitely detained, she realized that if she had nothing aside from her children driving her existence, she would one day crumble into desert dust and nothingness when -- best case scenario -- they moved on to the next stage of their lives. When she had free moments, Mrs. Coulson had returned to her first love; computing languages. Isolated from outside academic or military intervention, she had maintained the most advanced computing core in the state and composed programs on punch cards: symphonies of early machine language.
As systems had advanced, she had ensured that the town advanced with them, leading to the profitable but dubious good fortune of landing the pulsar development contract in their virtually unknown burg. She had cooed to her children in Fortran and had sung them songs composed from algorithms she was developing. The Coulson children had grown up speaking computer languages, quite literally in his sister Diana’s case. Phil had never had the knack of programming that some of his siblings did, but he did well enough. In instinctive ways rare to those of his generation, Phil understood what a computer could do. He saw the malleable power housed in motherboards, hard drives, and strings of opaque logical language.
Tapping into that wellspring of knowledge that seemed to stretch to a time before he could walk or speak had always felt like dredging up ghosts of his past.
Banner and Carlos had retired to Carlos’ lab with Cecil as a still-eager lab assistant. Sitwell and his teams were on the way to meet up with Phil and Barton though they had gotten pinned down by some late celebrants of cruise night and were going to be quite late.
The news that Cecil might have been a major component of the mess they found themselves in had disturbed everyone, but he admitted that he might have put a bit more emotional and mystical weight behind his curse when he uttered it in the depth of despair. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. It’s just— sweet Carlos had passed beyond that darkest veil and I was broken at the thought that he would never know of my love for him.” Carlos had blushed, obviously still unsure how to deal with such blatant, unapologetic adoration. “I never imagined I would unleash an ancient avatar of destruction and hunger upon our town.” Cecil’s eyes had turned dark with anger. “If he had truly been killed, though, rest assured such a beast would have been just the start of my ire.”
Barton had thrown an alarmed look at Phil. Phil shrugged negligently, being familiar with Cecil’s brutally vindictive nature when he felt he had been wronged.
As they approached his mother’s bunker, Phil felt the warm play of electronic eyes over his face and consciously avoided flinching. The `s his mother had programmed early to keep an eye on her children still unsettled him, being a nightmare cross between the Lost in Space robot, and K-9 from Doctor Who. One rolled up on rusting treads, tail wagging tentatively.
Barton had an arrow knocked in a flash, but glanced at Phil for instruction. Phil gave the barest negative headshake, and held out a hand for the ObserverBot. The bot pressed its orb of a face to his palm, reading biometrics, before scooting back and wagging its tail more excitedly.
“Where did you get a bow?” Phil asked with a sigh. Barton shrugged negligently.
Phil heard the crackle of a speaker turning on, followed but the sounds of fabric moving and a thump issued from the Bot. “Philip?” an older female’s voice asked.
“It’s me, ma,” Phil replied.
“I thought you were going to the Job Fair,” his mother replied, as though he had said he was going for a pint of milk and she’d run into him at the arcade.
“I was,” he agreed, “but life has a way of changing your plans.”
His mother hummed an agreement. “Well, come on in then. Bring your friend. Mind your biometrics.”
Phil rolled his eyes in a way that only his mother could elicit. The security protocols on the bunker looked like they had been rigged up by a prop department in a big budget science fiction film from the 80’s -- lots of blinking lights, a bubbly green and black screen, and a ceramic plate with a cartoony hand drawn on it. He put his hand on it and managed not to flinch when a needle pricked his thumb, gathering a blood sample.
The bunker door opened silently into a room taking up the whole of the bunker. A couch sat on the back wall with a side table. An armchair sat against one side wall while the other had a row of coat hooks and a neat row of shoes. Barton strolled in behind him, all faux nonchalance. The front door closed with the hiss of a sealing airlock.
“This is really where your mom lives?” Barton asked, looking around the small space. Abruptly the whole room jolted and began descending.
“She has done rather well for herself since my father died,” Phil admitted. Bunker properties were at a premium for a variety of reasons; safety and security against any assaults involving up to bull-sized predators, radiation, and various biological chemicals; low cooling costs; increased soundproofing affording privacy from the screams, moans, and chanting of your neighbors.
The room descended roughly thirty feet. The portal through which they had entered on the topside lined up with another doorway into a hallway which was obviously prepared to be converted to a decontamination unit at a moment’s notice. “I’d ask if your mom was crazy, but based on the rest of this place she just seems prudent.”
“I got it from somewhere,” Phil agreed.
A four-pronged cane preceded the woman herself. Mrs. Coulson had only a slight stoop, curly wisps of silver-white hair, and familiar, sparkling blue eyes. Her beaked mouth had a mischievous smile. “Come on in then,” she told them, waving her free hand towards herself.
She held her arm open for Phil to give her a hug. He kissed her cheek and did so. Her arm pressed into the fabric of his shirt harder than one would expect of a woman of nearly ninety. Her eyes closed briefly at the contact, and she let out a breath. Phil stepped back. “You’re looking well,” Phil said.
Mrs. Coulson rolled her eyes. “You always were too good a liar,” she told him with a shake of her head. “Introduce me to your friend -- I’ve never met any of your friends.” She said it in a chiding manner as though it was due to Phil’s negligence that she had never met Clint, and not because Phil had exiled himself at a young age and been prevented from returning home due to some sort of super-science singularity which the entire town existed within.
“Clint Barton,” Barton stepped forward, offering his hand to shake and cutting Phil’s correction that Barton was a co-worker in one movement.
“Florence, but you can call me Flo.” They shook.
“Mrs. Coulson,” Barton replied earning a raised eyebrow.
“You got a smart one here, honey. Don’t let him get swallowed up by the void,” Mrs. Coulson told Phil. She brought the hand that had just shook with Barton to her lips, licking her palm and closing her eyes in thought. “You have a taste of the road on you, Mr. Barton. You two must be tired; do you want a shower?”
“That would be amazing actually,” Barton admitted.
“There are towels in the bathroom down the hall. Remember to put your safety on before you hang up your rifle.” Somehow, though the reminder was completely unnecessary and from anybody else he would have been insulted, she managed to issue the reminder with a motherly tone that didn’t illicit so much as a twitch in the veteran agent. “Why don’t we go catch up? I have some iced tea in the fridge.” Mrs. Coulson took Phil’s arm and walked him down to the kitchen.
The air had the taste of recirculation and industrial cooling. Little papery bots circulated on air currents above their heads, almost see through wings swiveling and buzzing as they traveled. The low grinding moan of the pipes turning on filled the silence between them. Phil’s mother poured two glasses of iced tea and put one in front of him, settling into a kitchen chair with a sigh.
“You really are looking good,” Phil said because he meant it and not because he was trying to fill the yawning silence.
She smiled, and it wrinkled... everything. The crinkles in the corners of her eyes were the same he remembered from childhood, only deeper and heavier. The mischievous tilt of her mouth was the same, and the proud thrust of her chin had not lessened. “I’ve kept busy. I invented a few artificial intelligences.”
“All you needed was a bit of quiet,” Phil agreed, repeating a request she had often made when he was small.
Her eyes got a bit sad. “It’s never really quiet any longer.” Phil made an enquiring noise. “Not for years,” she added. “Something’s coming up.”
“What kind of something?” Phil asked, curious but not wanting to show too much eagerness.
She shook her head, biting her lip with a determined expression. “Something hungry. I can hear it feeling around the house some nights, looking for a way in. I’ve put some protections in place but some of the other bunkers...” She shook her head again as though trying to shake a thought loose. “They’re sucked empty.”
Phil’s eyebrows went up. “Is anybody—” He stopped himself from finishing the sentence with looking into it. This wasn’t the outside world. This was Night Vale. Certain rules didn’t apply.
“I told the City Council but you know how they can be. All soft meat crowns and chanting.” Her tone changed to that of someone airing grievances long-held and seldom voiced. “Some things just can’t be solved with chanting! I told them I had a viable alternative, but that man with the tan jacket has them under his thumb.” She growled in frustration.
“The fly salesman?” Phil asked.
“Oh, that’s what he’d have you believe but let me tell you; I caught some of his flies trying to get in here. Those flies are in the SS.”
“They’re... Nazi flies?” Phil asked, just to be sure he had gotten that correct. He’d heard of stranger things than Nazi flies.
Flo nodded sharply. “That’s why I started the air defense.” She waved a finger at the floating bots. “No SS flies are getting in here.”
Flo made wheat-free sandwiches and canned soup for dinner, and Phil left Barton with his mother looking at daguerreotypes of Phil as a child. She had told him more disturbing things about the City Council and the man with the tan jacket that he had not heard on the radio, either from being busy and not listening to Cecil’s show, or because it was Not to be Broadcast On. Phil suspected that whatever was sucking bunkers empty of life was involved or at least similar to the Ancient One which had dragged the subway cars into town. Sitwell and Thor rolled in around midnight and were stowed in one of what seemed like dozens of spare bunks. The rest of the team had gone to visit family or check on friends that they hadn’t seen in decades.
Phil slept uneasily, woken periodically by a frequency of grinding so low it vibrated through his bones and upset his dark passengers. He turned over in his bunk, unsettled and with a creeping anxiety more powerful than any he had felt in a long while.
He woke to the sound of voices. Barton was passed out in the lower bunk, exhausted from a long, confusing, no doubt emotionally draining day. He was asleep in a way he only slept when safe and guarded over. Phil left him to it.
Carlos the Scientist and Banner were in the kitchen with Mrs. Coulson, peering intently at a home-made sensor array. Flo had a huge magnifying glass pointed at it, and a pair of microinstruments in her hands. “You’re really going to have to learn bio-circuitry better than this if you expect to get anything done in this town. I hope you know that,” she chided Carlos.
Cecil’s voice on the morning radio show rose and fell as he related his delight over participating in science the previous night. Phil went about preparing breakfast as the two scientists and his mother tuned the equipment. She would be absolutely aghast if anybody described her as a scientist, but in honesty that was probably the job description closest to what she did. Phil put on a pot of oatmeal and scrambled eggs. The coffeemaker was already into its second pot of the morning. He poured out the last cup for himself and set it brewing again.
“That should do it.” Flo sat back, tipping her glasses down to the tip of her nose and flexing her somewhat knobby hands.
Phil exchanged a speaking look with Banner. “I don’t know,” Banner replied to the unvoiced question. “This isn’t anything I’ve dealt with before. There are animal organs in one of the parts.”
“Deer sinuses,” Phil suggested. The faintest hint of a tremor went through Banner; he had done his share of biology which involved dissecting small defenseless animals or doing horrible things to them, but the construction of their sensor equipment looked downright Frankenstein and it was obviously affecting the doctor. It was some combination of the mystic and the scientific, containing at least one bloodstone, several grisly biological components, and a good bit of on-the-fly engineering.
“I hope that wasn’t the menu,” Sitwell commented, lounging against the door frame. He was wearing his suit from the day before and only looking slightly rumpled.
“No. It’s not.” Phil nodded towards the coffee pot. Sitwell practically deflated in relief. With all the work he’d been putting his adopted passenger to in the last day or so, it was no wonder he was experiencing increased caffeine requirements.
Barton slouched in after him, disheveled and grumpy. Phil sat him down and put breakfast in front of him to avoid his asset’s sleepy disgruntlement developing into a hangry situation. A flock of tiny bots gathered around Barton’s breakfast, curious and silent except for the fwip fwip of their microfilament wings. He scraped a bit of oatmeal goo onto his thumb nail and held it up towards the flock. A particularly adventurous bot alighted on his hand, sensor hairs extending to taste the starchy substance.
Flo’s hand darted out, shooing the cloud of bots away and startling Barton’s friend into flight. “Don’t go feeding them; they never leave the kitchen if they think they can get a treat.” One of the bots dived towards Barton’s eggs, but Flo hissed, and it quickly altered its trajectory to take itself out of the kitchen entirely.
They all ate, and drank another two pots of coffee to fortify themselves for the day. The sensor array was tested one last time. They grabbed their rifles and settled tactical vests on, and set out into the desert heat, hunting large game.
Chapter 14: Let them eat cockroach cake
Science, Old Woman Josie, and a plan of attack. Finally.
The sensors led them on a merry chase around town until Carlos realized he had put the doohickey in backwards and none of them had noticed, at which point things became even more confusing. The dog park seemed to be a definite lode-point for the sensors, but as they traveled farther from the dog park, a second signal would arise.
They finally traced it to the man with the deerskin briefcase and the tan jacket who was standing outside one of the subway stations crawling with proprietary cockroaches, handing out meaningless -- or entirely too meaningful -- pamphlets on the newest (closed) public transit craze to hit Night Vale.
Sitwell glared at the man in the tan jacket with the deerskin case from behind a Tourism Board kiosk. “That guy doesn’t look legit.”
“Just saying that is observing more about that man than anybody else in Night Vale has managed,” Phil informed him.
“I could take a shot,” Barton offered doubtfully.
“No. We’re unsure of his involvement in this whole mess. We need to interrogate him before I could authorize a kill order.”
Barton shrugged again.
Natasha glared at the man in the tan jacket, first from one angle and then from another. “I can’t get a read on him at all. This is—”
“Weird?” Barton suggested. She nodded decisively.
Carlos’ phone rang, completely blowing any chance they had at being covert. The man in the tan jacket didn’t appear to notice, his smile wide and bright as he handed out pamphlets to children getting out of school.
Carlos answered the phone with, “Yes?” He hmmed, and nodded to himself. “Do you know anything about a man in a tan jacket?” he asked the person on the phone. “Oh! Well we’ll be right there then.” Phil raised his eyebrows. “That was Cecil. He says the Angels have been a bit more forthcoming with him, seeing as he has journalistic integrity.”
Cecil was sitting on Old Woman Josie’s couch in front of the television when Phil, Carlos, and an annoyingly large entourage accompanying them got to the house on the far side of the trailer park. It wasn’t that Phil didn’t trust his assets, the scientists, or Sitwell wandering around Night Vale by themselves, but he didn’t trust Night Vale not to do something awful and scarring to people that he had developed genuine affection for over the years. He was aiming to get these people back in as few pieces as possible, and that meant keeping a literal eye on them. He shot a look at Barton and Natasha who had been sneaking off to check out the rest of the property and potentially engage Angels in the yard in who knew what. They stopped, looking so innocent it was downright suspicious, and sat with the tall and the short Angel at the kitchen table. The Angels were still playing gin.
Thor had gone back to practice his statecraft within Tiny Town, and to hammer out a tiny written agreement between the Night Vale City Council and the miniscule warmongers. As the only individual, possibly on the entire planet, with the linguistic skills to act as interpreter Thor’s service was invaluable.
“On the phone you said you had more pertinent information?” Sitwell asked the general assembly of Angels, Old Woman Josie, and Cecil.
“Oh, yes. They were telling me the most interesting things about the Ancient One that have just been making me quiver down to the cockles of my very soul.”
“What does the Ancient One have to do with the man with the tan jacket?” Banner asked.
“I don’t like that man,” Old Woman Josie commented. “He’s so very difficult to see and I can never say anything about him after he’s gone. I would buy some flies, but I don’t trust anybody with my money whose face I can’t draw in a pool of bodily fluids.”
“The proboscis of the ancient one can not be known. Only the trappings it wraps itself in may be know. The proboscis seeks to taste you, to draw you in, to have you march willing to its mouth. The proboscis must be sent back from whence it came. The proboscis tastes you even now in the meaty skin to seem as one of you.”
“Which one of us?” Cecil asked in the tone of an eager gossip hound.
“The purveyor of flies.”
“He’s not... actually a person?” Carlos asked.
Banner frowned. “That would actually make sense; that could be why we have such a difficult time describing him.”
Sitwell glared at Banner. “You can’t be telling me this bucket of crazy is logical.”
“If he’s actually a facet of a multidimensional being expressing through our plane of existence, then yes, I am saying that,” Banner replied.
“He seeks to taste us all,” wailed a particularly tall, particularly slim, particularly eye-covered Angel.
“We must put the tongue back in the mouth,” the Angel said with a firmness not exhibited by any of the rest of the heavenly host.
Phil tilted his head sideways, as that usually helped him see problems from different directions, and sometimes hear on different frequencies. “How would we do that?” he asked.
“We must put the tongue in the mouth,” the firm Angel repeated.
“The teeth will not close while the proboscis quests among us,” an Angel who by all outward indications had been intently watching television said, talking over the firm Angel.
Banner buried his fingers in his bushy hair. “This is... way too much euphemism,” he said mostly to himself. A look of understanding and kinship passed between Carlos and Banner.
Cecil’s blank eyes glanced around the assembled group. “Now bear with me because my euphemism translation skills were borrowed by my cousin during poetry week and she is just terrible at returning things—”
“We could use the man with the tan jacket like a key-card and gain access to the inner workings of the Ancient One,” Phil filled in.
Cecil pouted. “I see you never grew out of the direct approach, Coulson,” he groused.
“But to what end?” Banner asked. “Say we get inside the Ancient One. We gonna pull an Iron Man and Jonah our way through the problem? Because we don’t even know whether we could do something this multi-dimensional damage with the materials we have access.”
“We exist everywhere,” the firm Angel stated.
“On all planes.”
“Every one of them.”
“Everywhere,” the other Angels murmured in agreement.
“This may be getting too deeply into the purpose of the heavenly host, but aren’t you guys supposed to protect humanity?” Carlos asked. “From terrible extra-dimensional threats, I mean. Not from the innate folly of man.”
The Angels muttered at one another in languages beyond the human mind’s ability to comprehend, like cutting glass and breathing heat.
“If we had the proboscis we might ride it through the maw. This garrison would be a tornado of blades to rip its throat asunder and force it back behind the wall from whence it came.”
“Where is the maw? I mean, it’s well and good to go off kidnapping fly salesmen, but it’s not going to do much good if you don’t know where to send him back to,” Cecil said logically.
Sitwell shrugged. “I’d lay even money that it’s the dog—”
Phil put his hand over Sitwell’s mouth, cutting off his words in a mumble. “I think we all have reasonable suspicions about what the culprit is in all of this.”
“You should all get on this, then. And don’t forget about the sun strikes this evening,” Cecil reminded them. Banner and Carlos exchanged a wide-eyed excited look that presaged a lot of -- hopefully productive -- destruction.
While they had talked with Cecil and the other Angels, Barton had struck up an unlikely friendship with the TV-quoting Angel and the Angel who spewed a variety of disturbing and noisome sounds in lieu of words or language, engaging them to such a degree that they had forgone their game of gin entirely. Barton, whose knowledge of television was as exhaustive as any SHIELD workaholic Phil knew could be, seemed bizarrely at ease conversing with the ten-foot-tall celestial beings.
“These guys say they’ll give us a hand kidnapping with the guy with the tan jacket.”
“I’m coming with,” Natasha added, shuffling the forgotten deck of cards with practiced hands.
“No problem. You can take shortie.” Barton thumbed at the shorter angel who was spewing a vibrato of static.
The sight of Barton and Natasha riding towards town on the backs of a pair of the heavenly host, intent upon mayhem, was not one that would soon leave Phil’s memory.
“Should I be worried about them?” Phil asked the Erika nearest him.
“The young are full of vinegar this time of year. Best they spend it in useful endeavour,” the Angel replied.
“Join us in watching the wheel of fortune,” an Angel on the couch entreated, patting the cushion at its side.
Phil hedged. “I should check in with Thor.”
Chapter 15: Petrol Fish
The final battle and going home.
The town was in chaos. This was not a particularly unusual state for Night Vale, but the sort of chaos pervading the city was more vivacious and panicked than the usual sort. Hooded figures and bare-faced City Council members flitted through the streets, dead-eyed, silent children in tow. The plane which had not stopped appearing and disappearing throughout town had simply appeared directly outside the private library and was causing traffic snarls felt as far as the highway. The lights over the Arbys, usually only bright enough to be seen after dark, were dancing like a ballet of distant suns brought into focus under God’s microscope.
Cecil was broadcasting at such a fevered pitch it came through all the radios whether they were on or not, and anything with appropriate resonance including artificial limbs and toaster ovens. “—on good authority that in spite of the insistence of the City Council a charge of the heavenly host is currently gathering in conjunction with individuals from the Pulsar Research Facility in attempt to stave off this assault of unplanned public works projects.”
Carlos and Banner were checking the connection of cables which were set up to gather energy from the sun strikes which would (hopefully) be pumped into the maw of the Ancient One, thereby disabling it or convincing it to hunt elsewhere. Some quick coordination with the pulsar development group outside of town had resulted in the repurposing of the Night Vale Atmospheric Defense Grid to absorb and funnel energy into the subway car in town. Hooded figures were shouting at them in bright bursts of static and Council members were throwing gobs of a gluey substance which they dodged easily. They gathered that the City Council was not in favor of their activities. Thor had had to be convinced with the most dire of language that he would not be joining the Angels on their assault of the Ancient One. Eventually it had taken the invoking of Jane Foster to keep him back behind the action.
The parade of heavenly host, led by Old Woman Josie, proceeded solemnly down streets blowing in the shifting winds of chaos. Banner and Carlos stepped away from the subway car as they approached. The Angels boosted Old Woman Josie to the top of the subway car, and dragged the unconscious form of the man in the tan jacket to the nose. With the press of their many-fingered hands at his wrists and ankles, and the speaking of some of the more minor words of creation, he was affixed.
The Angels surrounded the subway car, a mass of wings and eyes and hands, and picked it up, rising into the air with the shuffling of feathers and sandalled feet.
The sky tore open, caught in an infinite moment of destruction which reverberated with the rhythm of creation itself in a moebius sound. The Angels were crying out, each in their own way, and the cacophony would have drowned out any lesser aural input. The man with the tan jacket was attached to the front of the subway car the Angels carried as part ritual sacrifice, part figurehead. The air was whipped into a burning hot flurry by the sun strikes and the holy energies being focused on the metal cylinder. Cables trailed behind the subway car like a peacock tail, pouring energy into the conveyance.
With a gong-like clang, the Angels rammed the subway car through the dog park’s front gates, splattering the man with the tan jacket into a million black droplets that were not blood. Like a finger pressing into an elastic membrane, the subway car seemed to distort the dog park into a funnel shape, down, down, down, before something snapped. That something was the perimeter of the dog park, which disappeared into a sinking hole, down which the Angels had flown with their battering ram/subway car. In place of the dog park was a crater, the bottom of which was unknowable and dark, but into which the cables which had attached to the subway car disappeared.
The sun strikes were reaching a fever pitch, the flashes of their impact on the city-wide defense grid, high above the skies of Night Vale almost a constant, blinding glow. That energy funneled into wherever the Angels had gone, and the whole town shook with an explosion so deep beneath the earth that it felt like an earthquake. A few buildings collapsed. A few others simply shifted into their neighbor’s parcel, which would no-doubt result in salvage rights disputes shortly. The crater shifted, filling in and becoming a normal smoking pit.
The sewer outlets all spewed a liquid the consistency of ichor and with the scent of mingled raw petroleum and charred calamari.
The sun strikes died off around sunset. Carlos and Banner made two full circuits of the town with Cecil finishing up his evening show and joining for the second circuit. There was no evidence of further incursions by the Ancient One. Thor assured them that Tiny Town would not be attempting something so awe-inspiringly terrible in the future.
“The normal manner by which my people have reached lasting peace in matters such as this is through generations of intermarriage whereby the people become one. I think it sadly unlikely that your peoples could manage procreation, so that solution seems unlikely to result in cessation of conflict,” Thor told them. “Nay; separation of your peoples seems the wisest course. I have offered the tiny denizens of the bowling arena the run of that facility, and access to the parking areas for expansion of their civilization to secure peace and they have agreed.”
“Isn’t that like offering them all of North America?” Barton asked, eyebrows raised. He had only heard second-hand about the size of Tiny Town.
“Aye. They might expand for a hundred years and their holdings would not reach the edge of that domain. At that point, all may have mellowed from long cohabitation and be less prone to fits of violence.”
“Or they could spend the entire time preparing to destroy the giants,” Barton murmured. Thor looked distressed.
Sitwell rocked from his heels to the balls of his feet, the very picture of satisfaction. “So, not to eat and run, but we should be getting back to base.”
Ramos shifted, standing slightly away from the group. Juliard moved to join him along with the majority of the Night Vale team. “We’re staying,” Ramos said. “My pension checks should make it here. I want to die near where I was born.”
The others nodded. Not all of them were retirement age, but all of them seemed certain they would like to stay.
“Well that certainly makes transport that much easier. I was thinking the Black Helicopters might be the only option for getting us all out.”
Jeanine grinned and it was all teeth. “Remember the first time they told you you’d be using a helicopter during training? I just about cried.”
Phil nodded in sympathy. “That was the hardest head shot I’d ever taken up to then.”
“You just get attached,” murmured one of the Night Vale team who had decided to make a bid for the outside world again.
“Headshot?” Banner asked, face wrinkled in anxious distaste.
“It’ll make sense when we get to the breeding ground,” Phil assured Banner.
“Your hometown is fucked up,” Barton said.
“We’ll give you rides. I got some City Council cars while they were all trying to figure out where the Dog Park went.” Ramos gestured with his head towards three unmarked sedans.
“This is where I should go back to my lab,” Carlos the Scientist said, sticking a hand out for Banner. They shook, and Carlos nodded to everyone else, and headed off in the direction of the radio station instead of his lab.
“That dude’s got it bad,” Barton said with a grin.
Ramos and the rest of those staying dropped them off at the base of the plateau. The shapes of helicopters were just visible on the edge of the plateau, rotors spinning lazily in the early dawn light. “This is where I leave you guys. Take care.” Those leaving and those staying embraced. Nobody had to say that this would be the last time they would likely see each other; it was already well understood.
“Why are they up there?” Barton grumbled as they walked towards the switchback stairs cut into the stone of the plateau.
Sitwell frowned, the taste of a memory twingeing in the base of his brain.
“And what are we going to have to give a headshot?” Banner asked, looking more than a bit ill at the idea.
Phil grunted. Jeanine shrugged. The rest of the party saved their breath and thoughts for getting up the steep stairs. Phil stopped them all before they could see over the rise of the plateau. “Take a look and then we’ll formulate a plan of attack.”
They all peered over the plateau at the flock of helicopters not too far distant. This close it was easier to see that they were not in fact helicopters, but some sort of twisted raptor-like creature with rotor wings and anywhere from one to three heads.
“What the fuck are those?” Barton asked in a hiss.
“The Black Helicopters. Only way through the physio-temporal displacement that I know of.”
“I am familiar with the conveyance of your realm, and that—”
“That’s not a helicopter,” Natasha replied.
Jeanine shrugged. “It’s the final trial before you can get a job with the vague but menacing government agency on the outside. You just gotta pick which one you’re going after, make sure you get it muzzled, and hop on the bit of the spine between the front legs and the back legs.”
“How do you muzzle something like... that?” Natasha asked. Phil held up a length of rope tied into a rough bridle of the correct size. “Huh.”
The helicopters weren’t expecting it. The helicopters never seemed to expect it, no matter how many of them were captured and ridden out of town, which Phil supposed, was a blessing unto itself. Thor mounted his chosen beast with a gleeful whoop and the ease of someone who had tackled and forcibly ridden any number of strange menagerie creatures. Banner nearly hulked out, but the additional strength skirting the line between scrawny scientist and big green gave him the edge he needed, and they all mounted with a surprisingly little loss of blood. Phil consulted his mental map and turned his mount north, giving it a few swift kicks to get it motivated. The rest of the harnessed flock followed him.
“You keep never saying anything about the headshots comment,” Barton said pointedly. He was having a bit of difficulty managing his mount due to having picked one with three heads. Smarter, yes, but also more trouble. Natasha passed them both by in an effortless swirl of jewel-toned rotors.
“If you don’t kill the helicopter you rode out on, it’ll come back and tear out your liver at some point in the not too distant future. It’s the final test for getting hired; ruthless efficiency.”
The whump-whump beat of helicopter blades lulled them all into quietude. After several days in disaster prevention mode, it was impossible not to let his eyelids drift closed. Which was how Phil almost missed their landing site.
The sun was just setting when Phil forced his mount down into a bone-yards which had obviously been used as a helicopter landing site before. He’d used this bone-yard before, in fact. Before the beast could turn back and try to rip his liver out, Phil administered the appropriate headshot and it slumped to the ground, a sack of meat and expired dreams. Corpses -- some picked clean and some mummified into frighteningly lifelike aspects of the undead -- stretched for a kilometer in every direction, littering the landscape like a grisly sculpture garden.
“Where the fuck are we?” Barton asked, having dispatched his own beast with a regretful expression.
“Scramwhat-what?” Barton asked.
“The state between New Mexico and Colorado,” Phil explained. Barton frowned, obviously trying to recall geography. Natasha gave him a look that said she clearly thought he was crazy but couldn’t say anything that wouldn’t show that she was as well. “There should be a team out of Colorado Springs in a few hours. We should head north.” Phil pointed towards a low series of hillocks in the distance.
Sitwell, Jeanine, and the two others in the Night Vale team who had decided to leave landed, the report of assault rifles indicating they’d taken care of their beasts. Thor took his out with a strike of lightning, abrupt and terrifying. Banner was last to land and got in a brief tussle with his beast before Sitwell matter-of-factly shot it in both its heads. Banner shuddered, the splash of dark ichor coating his side.
“Scraamubabba?” Jeanine asked. “I haven’t been here since my high school trip. You think they still have that custard stand?”
“I feel like we forgot something,” Banner said, scratching his head.
Phil smirked. “Let’s go find out if the frozen custard stand is still open.”
This has been just a wonderful ride. I can't thank every single person who commented while I was writing enough; you all were inspiration and audience and cheerleaders and it was lovely. Inspiration points as always go to The Job Fair which put forward the Phil of Night Vale idea beautifully. And of course, thank you dear reader for reading to the end.
As always, comments, concerns, questions, and concrit are appreciated.
Good Night, Night Vale. Goodnight.
Chapter 16: Epilogue
I thought I was done. I wasn't done. Now I'm done. For all the folks who asked what happened to the misclassified equipment sent to the abandoned mine shaft outside of town.
Interesting news, listeners. I'm getting reports from a confidential source within the Secret Police that Old Woman Josie is back, and she's not alone! Old Woman Josie was spotted leaving the abandoned mine shaft outside of town accompanied by a rag-tag heavenly host and perhaps strangest of all, a bunch of mining equipment! That equipment is remarkably versatile being old, new, and everything in between. They appear roughly humanoid in their configuration though they display a surprising uniformity. Speculation has ranged across the spectrum from body-double-mecha-intruders to a covert spy force by embiggened Tiny Town residents to actual mining equipment.
Speaking of Tiny Town, the City Council is proud to announce that the city of Night Vale has landed a microprocessor production grant in conjunction with that tiny civilization behind the pin retrieval area in lane five of the Desert Flower Arcade and Fun Complex soon to be renamed the Tiny Town Arcade and Fun Complex. Of course, for those microscopic residents, microprocessor assembly is more akin to public works and construction, but with any luck, they'll get all tuckered out from a hard day's work and not have much energy left for warmongering.
Hold on— I'm getting some reports from those on the outskirts of town about the equipment Old Woman Josie has been escorting out of the abandoned mine shaft. They are not in fact mining equipment, but are in actuality living, thinking, feeling people; brave spirit pilots of their transitive sacks of meat and blood. This is quite a surprise, as most of these individuals are still displaying their intake barcodes which clearly label them as extractors, various digging equipment, generators, and soul purgers. That is one heck of a clerical error, and if the Desert Bluffs Mining Co hadn't been chased out of town by a pitchfork wielding crowd a few decades ago, I'd imagine they'd be facing quite a lawsuit. They're apparently insisting they're from a place called 'New York', which is an absolutely ridiculous name, considering there's already York, Old York, Pretty Reasonably Fresh York, Future York and Distant Past York, all in Schlitz. 'New York' apparently isn't even in Europe! Who do they think they're kidding -- if they'd wanted to keep their origins under wraps, that's alright. We've all had our secrets to keep. Just don't make up something downright silly and expect us not to notice.
But regardless of their origins, let me be the first to say to these new immigrants to our tiny burg; welcome. New residents are quite literally the lifeblood of the town, and I'm sure they'll settle in just great. If you see one of these new people around town be sure to say 'hi' and invite them over for an evening chant, an outdoor barbecue, or a good old-fashioned night of cowering in terror in the basement as the thing that comes for us all knocks on our doors to see who has been naughty and who has been nice. With that note of kinship, friendship, and relationship building, I'll leave you to quiet sounds of a mouse playing the world's tiniest fiddle in honor of the double-moon. Goodnight Night Vale. Goodnight.