The sky was alight with clear, cold stars.
It was rare that Jon found himself in a place with this little light pollution. He scanned the night with interest for familiar constellations...and couldn't even find the Big Dipper. By this point he wouldn't have been surprised to learn that they'd switched hemispheres, except that he didn't see the Southern Cross, either.
He turned to ask Stephen where they were, and the question was shocked out of his mind by the fact that Stephen's eyes had started glowing: all three irises, a burnished, molten gold.
"You should probably stand back," said Stephen, waving for Jon to stay by the front door as he hopped down the steps and took a brisk walk along the path. When they were about twenty feet apart, Stephen stopped and turned around; his eyes blazed in the post-twilight darkness, the light flickering out as he closed them, just for a moment.
There was a low whumph as the air around him exploded outward from the manifestation.
Wind rippled the grass in all directions. Jon stumbled back a step from the force of the gust. And when he caught his breath, he found Stephen spreading —
Massive bald-eagle wings, deep brown with a subtly paler shade on the undersides of the flight feathers, big enough that Stephen could have cocooned his entire body in just one of them. Even that size wasn't enough to explain the force with which they moved through the air. It kicked up another light breeze when Stephen fluttered his long primaries like worrying fingers.
"Is it safe yet?" called Jon. He wanted to get a closer look at Stephen's new limbs, but he didn't feel like getting blown over in the process.
The edges of a complementary white-feathered tail flared behind Stephen's legs, sticking out from the back of his button-down like an untucked shirt. "For you, yes!"
Jon jogged to his side. With careful slowness, Stephen curved one wing down around them so Jon could get a closer look. They might not be as sexually tantalizing as tentacles, but they were beautiful, and Jon said so as he stroked the silky undersides of a row of feathers as long as his forearm. "These are really something, Stephen."
Stephen's eyes flashed a brighter gold yet, lighting up the blush on his face. "Well, of course they are," he stammered. "I'm the Voice of America — well, one Voice of America, there's also Al Jones in DC, and a couple of others — but even shared, it's a big job. Do you — do you want to see another thing? It may not work out, but I can try to show you. If you're interested."
Yes, Jon was definitely interested. And in this area, he'd never had any problems from trusting Stephen. He squeezed Stephen's shoulder, close to the base of one wing. "I'd love to."
"Great!" said Stephen. "Hold on tight."
"Wait, what —"
Before he could finish the question, Stephen had scooped him into a princess carry, dropped into a crouch, spread his mighty wings, and flapped.
They shot away from the ground like a firework into the sky.
It was chilly outside with the sun down. Carlos was glad he hadn't thrown out all his sweatshirts when he moved to Night Vale, glad he'd been able to toss a few in his suitcase when Cecil said "oh, just pack for everything." He didn't actually remember packing this particular navy-blue hoodie, but it was on the top of the pile, so (after the routine check for scorpions) he pulled it on.
As always, a lab coat went on top of everything else. His little way of saying no matter how much you scare me, I still believe in Science to whatever reality-bending terrors he might run into.
(Like what appeared to be a crop circle in the cabin's front lawn: all the grass flattened outward from a central point, to at least an eight-foot radius. He walked straight across it without letting his confidence flag. If whatever had created it was still watching, it didn't have the nerve to bother him.)
A half moon was rising behind the dark outlines of the mismatched trees. By its light Carlos followed the dirt path from his cabin to the place where the cars were parked. He didn't know which of the cabins Cecil's aunt was sleeping in; instead, he had a vague idea of looking for the bus, and asking it where she was.
No sign of the bus in the lot. But from this angle, the silhouette of the main cabin was different from how it had been in the daytime: there was some kind of viewing platform on the roof. In the moonlight, it gleamed yellow.
He was a few paces away from the building when a rope ladder unrolled itself over the edge and bumped invitingly against the faux-rustic wooden walls.
The climb was a piece of cake. It took him two floors off the ground, but he'd been to higher heights. Sometimes at tinier sizes, too, and other times with carnivorous predators snapping at his heels.
The bus/platform had a simple metal railing surrounding most of the edge, and right up against it on one side was a telescope. Not the portable apparatus of an amateur stargazer, but a professional setup taller than Carlos himself. It had a robotic mount, the kind that could be programmed to precisely track a single star across the night (Mikey would have loved that), and its crown jewel was a lens nearly two feet across.
"Ah, Carlos!" said Aunt Valerie, not looking up from the eyepiece. She was wearing a navy-blue polo shirt and a knee-length business skirt, both printed with twinkling star charts, plus earrings in the shape of full moons. "It's a lovely night for stargazing, isn't it? Right now I have my lens trained on Alpha Centauri...which looks like a single star to the unaided human eye, but with even a very small telescope you can see for yourself that it's been a binary star system all along."
"Huh," said Carlos. By way of small talk, he added, "Have you ever been there?"
"Do you know, I never have. Which is such a shame! It's barely over four light years away from our Sun, and it's quite possible there are Earthlike planets orbiting either of those stars. I just haven't made the time."
Exactly how far across the universe could her bus go?
"But I see you haven't come up here to talk about astronomy with me."
"No," said Carlos, and for all the determination that had carried him here, he was relieved she'd given him the opening. He'd had thesis advisers who didn't inspire as much academic deference in him as she did. "I came up here to ask...who was Phil?"
A soft silence, except for the crickets in the trees.
"Who was Shirley?" continued Carlos, warming to his topic. "And how about the blonde girl, not Dorothy Ann, someone else, who was always wearing that green dress with the polka dots? Or the other Latino boy, the one with the curlier hair? Even as I'm saying that, I can't picture him. Why do I know that sounds right when I can't actually remember what he looked like?"
"Ah," sighed Valerie. "Something's put you on to this train of thought, I take it."
"People in Night Vale have big families, but none of the adults in this group are siblings," said Carlos. "They take it in stride. They're used to losing people. The kids you teach, we get our memories of the weird stuff blocked afterward, but with finesse — we don't lose the whole year, we don't even feel that there are logical gaps, the incidents we can't handle are just smoothed right over. Cecil — Cecil didn't let me go on your field trip the other day. How...why...?"
Aunt Valerie turned to face him. Printed across the front of her skirt was a black hole, its event horizon glowing softly, the star charts around it warping on their way to someday being drawn in.
Carlos caught his breath.
"Do you remember what I always used to say, Carlos?" she said — and it was gentle, as open and approachable as she'd always been. "If you keep asking questions...you'll keep getting answers."
It wasn't a threat. A warning, yes. But also an offer.
Voice cracking like he was a kid again, Carlos said, "How many of us died?"
His teacher's eyes fluttered closed for a second as she thought back. "There would have been eight left at the end of your year, am I right?"
Carlos counted off the ones he remembered clearly on his fingers. Dorothy Ann, Arnold, Wanda, Tim, Phoebe, Ralphie, Keesha, and himself. And why hadn't that ever stood out to him as strange? He'd grown up in a nice middle-class school district, sure, but not one where the student:teacher ratios were that low.
"Yes, of course. You were one of my stronger classes. There were twenty-one to begin with — twenty-two, after Phoebe transferred in. More than a third of you made it through."
A wave of fight-or-flight adrenaline swept through Carlos' system as a whole new set of memories started clicking into place.
Gregory's protective suit failing on their miniature trek through the bus's engines. A bat-eared Molly screaming as her bones snapped in an owl's beak. Amanda-Jane's body lying dead in a green spacesuit on the surface of Pluto.
Near-death experiences rushed back along with the deadly ones. Phoebe, pale and twitching in the bus's spontaneously-generated medical bay, while her teacher expertly treated a venomous snake bite. The Friz with a bright yellow rocket launcher, taking out a T-rex moments before its jaws closed on Arnold.
(Maybe the memory blocks had never worked as well on Arnold as the rest of them. Maybe that was why he'd spent the year expecting the worst, while the rest of them were always delighted when the next field trip came around....)
Oh, God, Carlos had let Mike go on trips sometimes. He'd let six-year-old Mikey go once when he hadn't. And that was the trip Phil didn't come back from. If whatever went wrong had played out just a little differently, would he have forgotten even his own baby brother?
"How could you let that happen?" he yelled, shaking with emotion. "How could you keep putting us in that kind of danger when you knew, you knew you wouldn't always bring us all back?"
"Think back over all the time you've lived in Cecil's home town," prompted the Friz. "How many interns have you heard him send off into situations they didn't survive?"
A lot. Too many to count on his fingers. And Carlos didn't hold it against Cecil, but, but — "They volunteer. They're adults — or at least older teenagers. They know what they're getting into! We were children!"
"Based on your observations, were you ever in more danger than an average child in Night Vale?"
"Based on my observations, we weren't in Night Vale! Just because some kids have the bad luck to grow up in Weird America — with all the possibly-fatal hazards that implies — that doesn't make it okay to find a group of kids who otherwise would have been fine, and bring your own little piece of Weird America to us!"
"Why, Carlos. You of all people should know that there's no impermeable border between Weird America and everywhere else. It didn't take you any magic to get there, did it?"
He shook his head. No, it hadn't. Just a map with the hidden roads scribbled in, and a list of directions explaining which unmarked exits to keep an eye out for.
"There was nothing to stop you from driving right in. Without any kind of protection, or even the faintest conscious idea what you were getting into."
She used one foot to pop open a panel in the surface of the bus/platform, and retrieved a bundle of cloth which she tossed in his direction. Carlos reflexively grabbed it out of the air: a wool hat and scarf, dark blue, just his size.
"When I first started reading my dear nephew's Facebook posts about the perfect scientist who had come to town, I was certain the poor boy was going to get his heart broken. Outsiders come into places like that all the time, you know. And if you haven't grown up learning how to survive it, the odds are so terribly low that you'll figure it out as adults before it's too late."
"I managed," said Carlos, knowing how weak it sounded. Even if he kept it up, his team's overall death-or-abandonment rate would stay at 91% — somewhere between the death rate of Cecil's interns, and the death rate of Cecil's parents' children.
"Well, of course you did!" said Valerie. "Oh, I should have figured it out as soon as I read that you'd earned your first-year trophy! You might not have the conscious memories, but you did have that childhood training after all. And from one of the best, if I do say so myself."
"Fourteen kids had to die for me to get that training!" cried Carlos. "Are you trying to say it was worth it? Just because it might be the only reason I lived long enough to hook up with Cecil?"
"This modesty isn't like you, Carlos," chided Valerie. "I'm sure that isn't the only thing you've done in Night Vale."
The field of mostly-void behind her was starting to shimmer with light. Not the darting whitish spheres above the Night Vale Arby's, but ribbons of green, blue, purple. Auroras.
"I know Cecil has a tendency to exaggerate, so I've been taking his descriptions of your adventures with a grain of salt...but you have been instrumental in averting an apocalypse or two, am I right?"
The resort, the forest, and the suburbs of the nearby town spread out below like a miniature train set. Windows and streetlights made tiny points of light, an earthbound starfield.
Jon was panting for air and clinging to Stephen like a vise, but he wasn't actively yelling at Stephen to take him back down, which seemed like a good sign. He was scared in a normal way, not in existential terror for his life. He should be able to handle this.
Which just showed that Aunt Valerie had been right: he'd completely forgotten the part of the field trip where Stephen's nephew got eaten by a shark.
"I'm trying to find the right angle for something," said Stephen into Jon's ear. "On a night like this you can get an effect where the things I see are visible to standard human eyes. It's like with rainbows — the light gets scattered into the visible spectrum — as long as you're in the right place to see."
"Neat!" said Jon weakly.
Jon would hate it if he knew part of his memory was being blocked. He would be so mad at Stephen if he realized Stephen was helping to keep him in the dark. But sometimes a little healthy repression was what normal people needed to avoid becoming the next Alfred Clarendon or Richard Pickman. And when it came to making judgment calls on that issue, there was no one Stephen trusted more than Aunt Valerie and her bus.
(Stephen himself was taking the death in stride. He never got close enough to the kids for these things to hit too hard. He made a point of not even learning their names until they were at least twelve.)
He kept closing his third eye, trying to see if the extra layer of glow it took in was visible to the other two yet, as they soared in a wide arc below the clouds. When the auroras started spreading out around them, he knew they were getting warm.
And he knew before closing the eye again that they'd hit the spot, just by the way Jon gasped.
Auras shone across the earth from here to the horizon. Most of them were a pure, balanced white, haloing the apartments and the houses, sometimes with tints of red or blue. Almost directly below him and Jon, the cabins glittered with a veritable rainbow. Even the ethereal ribbons of the Eastern Lights that had started to dance in the sky around them paled in comparison.
"Oh my god," breathed Jon. At this altitude, his words came out in puffs of frost. "Are those — are those people?"
"Mostly," said Stephen. "In the broad sense of the word people." The optical effect revealing the lights to Jon was also making it more brilliant for Stephen. If he focused, he could even pick out a few particularly radiant individuals: Aunt Valerie's bright yellow, Cecil's stunning violet (with its tendrils that spiraled outward, linking him indelibly back to Night Vale).
Jon clung more tightly to his neck. "I...listen, this is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life. And I better not have set myself up for an ironic death by saying that."
(Maybe one day Jon would remember everything. Maybe, after it happened, he would appreciate why Stephen had kept him in the dark. Either way, in the meantime, giving Jon this view was Stephen's way of trying to make it up to him.)
"Guess we're not at the right angle for me to see ours," continued Jon, turning from the glowing panorama to study the two of them. "Can I ask what they look like?"
"Well, obviously mine is red, white, and blue," said Stephen solemnly. (He couldn't understand why Jon giggled. It was a perfectly dignified color set.) "And yours...."
Yours is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Sometimes when you're getting all righteously angry about truth and justice it makes you look like an angel, at least as far as wattage is concerned. I'll never tell you any of this, because it would give you a horribly unfair advantage if you knew, but the upshot is that I would never seriously be tempted away from you, even by the most gorgeous, chiseled, perfect-haired man in the world.
Well, not tempted into anything long-term. I could probably be lured away for a night. A week, tops.
Jon grimaced. "Is it at least a nice shade of blue-ish?"
For just a moment, Stephen gave in to his tenderer, less-manly emotions. He nuzzled his face against Jon's not-perfect, but plenty-distinguished-thank-you-very-much, hair, and whispered. "The nicest."
He had promised to be waiting when Carlos got back, and so Cecil was, dressed and with his hair combed but otherwise unchanged. His boyfriend was wearing a hat and scarf that matched the hoodie, and a vacant look that frankly didn't go well with anything, even in such perfect eyes.
Cecil stood, hands folded, waiting uncertainly for a hint about how to proceed. So much depended on how deeply Carlos had remembered — and whether he'd re-repressed some or all of it shortly afterward.
Carlos closed the door behind him, leaning back against it with a heavy sigh.
Eyes shut, he said, "Did you know, about a decade ago, one of your aunt's other former students helped stop some kind of hell-god from merging a demonic alternate dimension with ours?"
"I had not heard that," said Cecil carefully. "But I certainly believe it."
"How about the one who stopped an alien invasion from destroying the planet's biosphere? That was just a few years back. Did you catch that story?"
"Ah! Yes, I remember her. The talk show host."
Carlos opened his eyes to peer at Cecil in confusion. "I meant the one who worked for NASA. There was a talk show host too?"
"Oh, yes. Doctor something, from The Queen of Worries."
"What? That can't be right. That trashy Springer clone?"
"Don't say that around Old Woman Josie," Cecil warned him. "She still tapes the reruns every morning."
"I'll keep it in mind." Carlos massaged his temples. "How about the one who...there was a sunken city, I can't remember the name, but it was preparing to rise out of the ocean, and that would have been bad...."
"Standard part of the eighth grade history curriculum," said Cecil. Didn't need to confirm the name to recognize that story. Which was good, since he wasn't about to say R'lyeh out loud, though he wouldn't put it past Aunt Valerie to throw it around like it was nothing. "Carlos...speaking of things you remember...."
"Everything," said Carlos shortly. "Everyone. The details aren't all clear, but I have their names back. Their faces. What happened to them."
Cecil tried his hardest to put himself in his boyfriend's stylish yet practical shoes. It wasn't easy. What was a revelation for Carlos was routine for him; about a quarter of his own third-grade class hadn't made it through the year, on top of the former classmates that had already been weeded out in second, first, and kindergarten. "And how are you feeling?"
"I...." The hollow look was back. "I don't know. The world's still here. That's a good thing, right? Would it be okay if I felt happy about that?"
"Sweet Carlos." Cecil went to him, traced the lines of his cheeks, started to unwind the scarf from his neck. "Come and lie down."
Carlos allowed Cecil to take and fold up his new cold-weather things, slide the lab coat off of his shoulders, and guide him over to the bed. He lay with his head in Cecil's lap, where Cecil could tousle away some of the flatness the hat had imposed on his perfect hair.
"I am happy that the world is still here," said Cecil solemnly. "That I am alive, to be in it. That you are alive, to be here with me."
Well, yes. It was one of the things he did best. "Should I not? Is there something else I can do?"
Carlos took a slow breath. "Do you feel up to talking about...what happened to your siblings?"
Some of the families with longer commutes to get home had already left by the time Jon woke up. The adults who remained kept trying to foist leftovers on him and Stephen, "for the road," forcing Jon to explain several times that the normal American TSA had regulations about carrying liquids in general, and kerosene in particular.
By the time they were pretty much packed, Jon still hadn't seen Carlos. He left Stephen and Cecil by the cars, where they were happily arguing about whether government had a role in ensuring its citizens had health care or was only good for spying on them, and went to check their cabin.
Carlos was a desk in his and Cecil's room, wearing a lab coat over flannel pajamas, engrossed in something that seemed to involve three different electronic devices, a small stack of notebooks, and at least four pens. Jon knocked tentatively on the doorjamb. "Hey, uh, I don't want to interrupt anything, but we're about to head out...."
"Oh! I'll come see you off," said Carlos. "Just give me a second to save everything."
It was actually half a minute before he was organized enough to accompany Jon down the hall. "Big science project?" said Jon lightly.
Carlos looked sheepish. "Sort of. I guess you could say it's anthropology, which isn't usually my field, but...It's about local child safety, actually. And, um. Constructing an empirically-supported framework of parental best practices in my home region."
Jon took a moment to pull that apart, then grinned. "You and Cecil are thinking about kids?"
"I want to stress that we're in the earliest possible stages!" said Carlos. Jon was pretty sure he was blushing. "There's a lot to be aware of first — you really have no idea — and some of it is pretty daunting, but I don't want that to turn me away. I want to know all of it. A scientist is always thoroughly prepared."
"I think that's the Boy Scouts."
Carlos started, then pulled a pen out of his pocket. "Can't believe I left that off the list," he muttered, scribbling on the back of his hand as they emerged into the yard. "Have to figure out if there's a way to avoid the Boy Scouts."
It sounded like there was a story there, but Jon had a plane to catch, so he didn't press it. "Listen, it's a tremendous experience, risks and all, and I wish you all the luck in the world with it," he said. "And if you and Cecil, and possibly someone else, ever want to come to New York...see the sights, maybe take in some theater...call us up, all right?"
The scientist smiled. "I'll keep it in mind."
They were approaching the cars now, and the sound of raised voices. "Jon!" yelled Stephen as they got closer. "Tell Cecil that government-created pandemics are inefficient and a waste of taxpayer money!"
"I'm going to tell Cecil goodbye, and that it was lovely to meet him," said Jon firmly. "You should probably do something similar, because we're about to go."
Stephen let out a heavy, theatrical sigh, but pulled his cousin into a hug. "It was nice seeing you again, you jerk."
"It was so good to catch up!" agreed Cecil, slapping him on the back a little too hard. "Good luck on not losing that trophy your show always loses this year."
"Hey, at least in my town a trophy means something!"
"Lasting a year without dying is very meaningful!"
Jon and Carlos shared a knowing, exasperated look before stepping in to gently but firmly pull their boyfriends apart.
This was the point when a small yellow bird — it looked like the world's bravest goldfinch — flew into the middle of the group. Stephen held out a hand, and the finch perched right on it. "Aunt Valerie! Are you taking off now too?"
The bird, which on closer inspection looked suspiciously mechanical and appeared to have a windshield for a face, opened its beak. "Sadly, yes," said Aunt Valerie, her currently-tiny voice blasted over a megaphone to nearly-normal levels. "Time waits for no woman, unless you have a time machine, and I try to use that sparingly."
She exchanged goodbyes with her nephews. Stephen urged Jon to pat the bus/bird's head, and it let out a chirpy beep-beep! of appreciation.
"Oh, and — Carlos?" added Aunt Valerie, the bus doing a little hopping turn on Stephen's finger so it was facing the other two men.
Carlos, who was still hanging on to his boyfriend from behind, stammered, "Yes?"
"I know you two already have travel arranged, so I won't offer you a ride," said his former teacher warmly, almost gently. "But if ever you come across a scientific problem where you could use the help of a shape-changing bus...or a certified field surgeon, or a Level 3 exorcist, or if you just want to borrow a shrinkerscope, or anything at all...Cecil knows how to get in touch."
A confusing mix of emotions passed across Carlos' face. Either Jon was imagining things, or his grip on Cecil's arm got just a fraction tighter. Cecil was definitely keeping quiet on purpose, ready to defer to Carlos' reaction.
But the response Carlos settled on was a cautious smile. "We just might."
"Now that's what I like to hear!" exclaimed Aunt Valerie. "And on that note...Bus, do your stuff!"
In about twenty minutes Jon would be safely past the borders of Weird America. The air pressure would change back, Stephen would close his extra eye, the stars would arrange themselves in familiar patterns, and the laws of physics would start applying on a regular basis again.
But for now, he got to watch as a miniature magic bus spread its wings and soared off into the blue.