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He Says He Is An Experimental Theologian

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The first time Carlos hears Cecil's voice is in Big Rico's, where he, one of his colleagues, and a couple of the grad students have gone for an early lunch.

It's their first day in town, and it's been a long one, between the international flight overnight and the luggage and equipment they've been dealing with all morning. Not only is there a lot of it, some of the experimental apparatuses aren't exactly light. And most of their daemons are small-to-medium-sized, which was convenient for travel and finding local housing, but gets rough when Gerald's musk ox is the only one around to haul overweight loads.

So Carlos called it quits early, and went with the subset of the team too hungry for anything but fast food to the pizza place next door.

The other three order first, exercising their various levels of Spanish skill. Brad's struggling, and it doesn't help at all that he's so nervous (poor kid's hardly even been out of the Trimountaine area before; his golden hamster daemon is hiding in the pocket of his khakis); meanwhile, Adriana's fluent (she grew up near the Florida border, and while her iguana daemon can be hard to read, her confidence is obvious). She helps out Fleur, who's been a published researcher for upwards of ten years but is a self-professed disaster at language learning (even with her red-bellied grackle drilling her on vocabulary all week before they left).

Carlos hangs back, going over the checklist on his tablet for the hundredth time.

The local municipal regulations are...non-intuitive, to put it lightly. Some of the oddness is due to normal cultural differences, but Carlos is the son of first-generation Hispanian immigrants, and nobody in his family has ever mentioned needing to fill out so many forms on a regular basis. Even with access to writing utensils.

And that's when the voice being piped over the radio says, "A new man came into town today. Who is he? What does he want from us? Why his perfect and beautiful haircut? Why his perfect and beautiful coat? He says he is an experimental theologian...."

Carlos isn't really listening. It's Isaña who nudges his leg to get his attention. She's a three-banded armadillo, slightly larger than a grapefruit when rolled up: just the right size for Carlos to scoop into his arms. He puts away his tablet and does so. "What is it?"

"Do you realize," says his daemon, "that you're still wearing your chapel coat?"

(In private, they both prefer the terms used in Harvard's experimental research departments, like laboratory and scientist. Out in public, especially in a small town where religious sentiments might run stronger, they don't want to ruffle any feathers. So capilla and teólogo experimental it is.)

Carlos looks down at himself. Sure enough, he forgot to change. "Oh. Whoops."

"And just what does he plan to do with all those beakers and humming anbaric instruments in that chapel he's renting? The one next to Big Rico's pizza?" the guy on the radio is saying. "No one does a slice like Big Rico. No one."

"Hey, Carlos," says Adriana, still in Spanish. "Is it just me, or is the radio talking about us?"

Carlos looks to Isaña, who says, "Sounded like it." He listens a moment longer; the radio has gone on to talking about making sure your kids are playing safely in the scrublands.

"If they were, they're done now," he says. "I guess there's not much else to talk about around here."

They fill cups with soda and pile into a booth, clutching greasy paper plates with a slice or two of pizza each. Isaña sits on the bench next to Carlos with her head in his lap. Fleur and Brad look like they're dying with curiosity, and it's Fleur who finally asks, in English, "Did you say the radio was talking about us?"

Adriana shrugs. "Just for a minute. The announcer doesn't understand why we're here, and he likes one of the guys' hair. Didn't say whose."

Everyone, daemons included, looks at Carlos.

"The guy hasn't even seen any of us yet," says Carlos, waving them off. "Gimmicky radio thing. Don't think too hard about it."

He takes a bite of his cheese-and-broccoli pizza...

...and Isaña sits up straight, looking across Carlos' lap.

Following his daemon's gaze, Carlos realizes there's a fair-haired child of indeterminate sex standing next to their booth. Staring at them. It's an impressively creepy stare. The child's daemon, currently in the form of a bug-eyed praying mantis, stands on its shoulder and sways its greenish-brown head back and forth at them.

Carlos switches back to Spanish. "Hello there. Are you lost?"

Still staring, not saying a word, the child holds out an envelope. It's made of heavy brownish paper and has what looks like a genuine wax seal, stamped with an insignia Carlos recognizes. The website of the local government was always down when he tried to access it from the US, but he's seen their logo on the Night Vale Tourism Board site, complete with ominous Roman motto: Cogi Qui Potest Nescit Mori.

Using a plastic knife from one of the Big Rico's dispensers to crack off the wax, Carlos opens the envelope. There's no more paper inside — no, he realizes, this isn't paper, it's vellum — but on the inside of the envelope itself there are words printed, and when he unfolds it the rest of the way he finds an official-looking message with the City Council logo printed on the letterhead.

"From the Concejo Municipal," says Isaña.

("How did they know we're here?" asks Brad's daemon. The student shrugs.)

"That, or a really elaborate prank," says Carlos. They're still using Spanish, and he sticks with it as he summarizes the letter out loud, slow and enunciating so the beginners can keep up. "The council wants us to come down to City Hall to give a short presentation on our work and our goals. The town meeting is...today." He looks at the meeting time printed in the text, then at his watch, then at the text again, heart sinking. "Fourteen minutes from now."

There is nothing like this on his checklist. And even if the council really wants a presentation, they would give their visiting experimental theologians more warning than this. Right?

"Catorce minutos?" echoes Fleur. "It must be a...a false thing, an accident, a...."

"Gazapo," supplies Carlos. What if it isn't a typo or a mistake, though? What if it's a deliberate test of their ability (or willingness) to keep up with Night Vale's rules?

He turns to the messenger child to ask for more information. Naturally, the kid is long gone. He murmurs a question to Isaña, who shakes her head; she was reading the message along with him, not watching.

Carlos makes a fast decision and codeswitches unconsciously back to English: the language he's always used for scholarship, for research, for anything to do with Rusakov particles. "We're playing it safe. Everybody up," he says, as his daemon jumps to the ground. "Quick stop at the chapel, then down to town hall. I can do the talking — I'll grab a copy of the presentation I've been using with grant committees. It has some pretty visuals, at least."

The others scramble to grab their pizza and follow him out of Big Rico's. Everyone else is either off looking for a serious restaurant, or down at the grocery store getting a head start on filling up the rental kitchens. Not a problem. Carlos can work with these three.

"Brad, we've unpacked the camera, right? Grab that while we're inside," he says. Rusakov photography is the subject of Brad's thesis.

"Fleur, grab a stack of our photo release forms, then text the others and tell them we'll be at City Hall, and not to wait on us." He'd do that himself, but he'll be spending most of the next thirteen minutes frantically adapting his presentation.

"And Adriana...." There's no online map service with details of Night Vale; someone has to read one of the town maps left in the mailboxes of the rentals, along with coupon books, fliers for local businesses, and an information packet about something called "bloodstone circles." "Your job is to figure out which direction City Hall is in."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A dark-haired woman in a severe grey suit, who introduces herself as Trish Hidge, meets the group on the front steps of City Hall and ushers them inside. Her daemon, a large mostly-black bird with a fuzzy brown head, alternates between riding on her shoulder and flapping alongside her down the marble corridors.

Apparently Carlos and company were the last to know about this meeting, because they emerge into a nice classical-looking meeting chamber with at least a hundred townspeople in the seats.

There's a screen up front, and as Carlos stands behind the main podium, the title slide of his presentation flickers into place on it. Oh, good. When Trish had handed his flash drive to a (different) (probably) pale-haired child, and that child (along with its daemon, in the form of a white, eyeless spider) disappeared through a service door, Carlos had figured he would never see it again.

It looks like a lay audience for the most part, including a couple of kids whose daemons are already shapeshifting restlessly, so he skips to the slides with pictures and tries to keep it simple. Also, to focus on how fascinating and exciting Night Vale is. Overbearing local laws notwithstanding, this is a great research opportunity, and he's genuinely thrilled to finally have the funding.

He may get a little carried away talking about the amazing properties of Rusakov particles, trying to transmute the scholarly precision of his English on the subject into the more casual emotion of his Spanish. Isaña has to nudge his leg to make him wrap it up.

"...and I'm happy to talk more about it later to anyone who's interested," says Carlos, forcing his expression back into something more serious. "Also, in the name of experimental theology, we'd like to get a group photogram with anyone who's willing. You're all invited to stop by the chapel this weekend to see how the photos develop! But first, are there any questions?"

There aren't. Carlos has the distinct feeling that most people are only here for the snacks.

(Not everyone, though. With the presentation over, three men in dark glasses and dark suits with clerical collars slip quietly out. Carlos, who had noted them at the back of the room and took care not to say anything about God one way or the other, breathes a sigh of relief.)

Snacks or not, the promise of being in a photo for experimental theology does draw the interest of more than a dozen people. Brad sets up the camera, Adriana hands out release forms, and Fleur supervises them while Carlos trades handshakes with the people who want to talk to him one-on-one.

This is when he meets Cecil in person.

His first impression is: really, people still wear tie-dye?

Of course, Carlos has been wearing a chapel coat all day, so who is he to judge?

"This is so exciting!" exclaims the man in the rainbow tie-dye tunic. Aside from the clothes, he looks awfully generic; the only feature that stands out are his eyes, which are pale purple and clouded over in a way that Carlos associates with cataracts. If his vision is impaired, it isn't enough to stop him from meeting Carlos' eyes and seamlessly shaking hands. "I don't have a question, I just wanted to have the chance to personally welcome you into town."

"I appreciate it," says Carlos, smiling and trying to remember where he's heard that voice before.

"I'm Cecil!" says Cecil. "Cecil Palmero. You might have heard me on the radio? And you're Carlos, of course."

"Oh! Yes, I heard you earlier." (The news makes Cecil beam with pride.) Carlos gestures to his daemon, by his feet as usual. "And this is Isaña."

Cecil beams at her too. "It's delightful to meet you, Isaña."

The greeting catches both her and Carlos off-guard. It's not wrong to talk directly to another person's daemon, but it's still a little weird. "Likewise," she stammers.

They're both waiting for the obvious next step, which is for Cecil to introduce his daemon. The fact that Carlos hasn't spotted her yet is understandable — a big community gathering in a small space, you get plenty of daemons breaking away from their humans to socialize directly with each other. Any of the dozen animal shapes currently within ten feet of them could be Cecil's. If his daemon has an unusually high range, there are even more possibilities.

What Cecil says instead is, "If you ever have any important experimental-theology news that you need to share with the town, call me any time! Everyone listens to my show." There's a touch of what Carlos hopes is nothing more sinister than smugness when he adds, "Everyone."

He steps out of the way to let someone else interrogate Carlos, and vanishes into the crowd. Carlos doesn't get a chance to see what daemon he leaves with.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Brad and Fleur don't want to waste any time developing the photos, even a set they didn't plan on taking, so when they get back to the chapel they all focus on getting out the equipment and chemicals they'll need to prepare the Asriel emulsion.

If there's a way to build digital cameras that can record Rusakov particles as easily as anbaromagnetic radiation, this world has yet to invent it. Even incorporating this particular emulsion into an instant camera with traditional film, Polaroid-style, has never been reliable. You have to prepare it to unforgiving specifications, and you can't leave it sitting for long.

But once you've put in the effort, the results are breathtaking.

It's just gotten to the stage where the mixture has to be simmered when Henriette and Jordan re-enter the chapel, daemons in tow: a chubby grey alpine marmot and a small dark tufted deer, respectively. They were with the contingent that went to the grocery store, Carlos remembers. "Kitchens are stocked!" announces Jordan. "We won't starve tomorrow morning."

"And we come bearing beer!" adds Henriette, holding up a six-pack. "Whenever you're ready for it. Congratulations, Carlos!"

"We have to babysit a mixture over an open flame for the next twenty-four minutes," points out Fleur. "So it may be a while."

"But you guys go ahead!" adds Brad. His hamster daemon is poking up out of the pocket of his chapel coat.

Carlos and Adriana, who are neither working on nor advising Brad's thesis, take the opportunity to retreat a few workbenches away and pull up chairs. The goggles come off; Adriana lifts her daemon onto the tabletop in front of them, while Carlos scoops Isaña into his lap. "Thanks for the thought," he says. "The congratulations...was that about the presentation? Because it wasn't that much of an achievement, I swear. If you'd seen it...."

The two new arrivals sit across from them, daemons next to their chairs. Henriette's is giggling, in a way that suggests she's had a beer or two already. Hopefully Jordan drove.

"We heard all the highlights on the radio," coos Henriette, pulling bottles out of the six-pack and lining them up along the sturdy painted oak. "Carlos, you player, you."

Carlos splays both hands across Isaña's armored plates. He's not anxious or anything, but he is...concerned. "You heard it? Nobody told us any part of that was going to be broadcast."

"No, we heard that guy on the radio report it," says Jordan. "Seriously, Ramirez, what did you say to him to make that impression?"

"Okay, back up!" exclaims Carlos. "What, exactly, did he say?"

Henriette clears her throat. Her Spanish, like her English, has a light French accent, but she lowers her voice and Carlos has no trouble imagining the words coming out of the radio: "Carlos sonrió, y todo él era perfecto, y me enamore inmediatamente."

Adriana spits beer across the table.

"Does me enamorae mean what I think it means?" calls Fleur.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"What did we say to him?" murmurs Isaña from her basket next to Carlos' bed.

If the chapel is still somewhat disorganized, Carlos' bedroom (the last one down the hallway in the larger of the two rental houses) is a trainwreck. The place did come with furniture, but all his things are piled in boxes, and only two of them are even open. He's curled up under the sheets wearing boxers and an extra chapel coat, because neither he nor Isaña can remember where he packed his pajamas — and, in a disgrace to their profession, they barely labeled anything.

"All I remember is both of us saying hello," says Carlos. "And he said to call the radio if we had news. Honestly, I don't even remember what he looked like...the half of him I saw, anyway."

"Can't help you there." Isaña was on the ground the whole time, and of course armadillo eyesight isn't great. "All I remember is his better half not saying hello."

Carlos is stuck on trying to describe the man. Tall, short, thin, fat, pale, dark, long-haired, short-haired: every adjective he can think of seems too extreme. He remembers generic black hair, and those pale eyes, and nothing else except the tie-dye.

"...Is he cute?"

"Isaña!" hisses Carlos. "He's a gimmicky local radio jockey at best, and a fast-acting stalker at worst. That wouldn't exactly be appealing even if he was cute. Which, as far as I remember, he wasn't."

(That said, he doesn't remember Cecil being uncute, either.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Everyone on the team is up bright and early the next morning: mostly out of jet lag, but partly out of anticipation. Today they start the real work, the job on which nearly everyone's research is going to build: developing a map of the ambient Rusakov concentration across town over time.

In other words, hundreds of painstaking measurements.

It isn't the most exciting part of Carlos' job, but it leads to the fun stuff, so he runs everyone through the details one more time. They have three cars, all secondhand but serviceable, and three sets of the measuring apparatus (a great credit to Harvard, because those things aren't cheap), so they'll be splitting into three teams. Start at the designated points up at the north end of town and work southward, taking measurements approximately every thousand feet. Record the time and the precise GPS location of each measurement. When you get to the sand wastes at the edge of town, move a thousand feet westward and repeat the process heading back up.

"Question," says Ichiro. He's a researcher with his name on two dozen articles and a reputation for being sort of cutthroat, although that might just be based on stereotypes about people with primate daemons, like his capuchin. "What if our tablets all die in the middle of work? Do we seriously not get to use pen and paper?"

"Don't forget to charge your tablets," says Carlos.

"Don't patronize me, Ramirez. Ordinaters crash. Accidents happen. We can't be a hundred percent sure there won't be unavoidable equipment failure."

He has a point. "All right. This afternoon we'll look for a toy store or craft shop and pick up some number stamps. Unless anybody passes a store during work, in which case, feel free to run in. Just don't forget to save the receipts so we can reimburse you."

Fleur and Brad take a detour to the darkroom to see how yesterday's photos have developed while the rest of the team calibrates the measuring apparatus. Each device looks a lot like the rover that Hispania Nova sent to Mars a few years back, if you removed the sophisticated all-terrain wheels and evidence-gathering claws. The titanium-manganese alloy that makes up the bulk of their frames is a brilliant silver.

Just as the devices are all displaying identical readings, Fleur comes back into the room. "Carlos? Can I have a minute?"

Carlos tells the team to go ahead and load up the vehicles, and follows his colleague through the chapel. Her red-bellied grackle daemon rides on her shoulder, flapping his feathers in agitation; Isaña trots alongside them. "What is it? Something wrong with the photos?"

"Hard to say," says Fleur. "We want a second opinion before we start spreading this around."

She might mean all four of them, but Carlos gets the impression she's only talking about herself and her daemon. Something's happened that they want a fellow professional, not just a student, to look at.

The lights are up in the darkroom and the photograms laid out across a table. A few control images of City Hall's interior design, then two group portraits, covering all the townspeople who wanted to be in them...all lit up with clouds of glittering golden Dust. It's present everywhere, but swirls most thickly around the humans and their daemons: Rusakov particles made visible.

Carlos picks up Isaña and sets her on the table so she can see.

There's an obvious anomaly in the first portrait: several of the humans have unusually high concentrations of Dust in front of their foreheads, so dense that they glow white at the center. One is the man in the cartoonishly racist feathered headdress. At Carlos' best guess he's from Muscovy or Lapland, but it looks like he's been committed to embodying Native stereotypes for a long time, if the wolf daemon next to him (also in a headdress!) is any indication.

Another is Cecil, whole face washed out from the brightness above it. None of the daemons around him are identifiably his. Neither can Carlos pin down a race or ethnicity for the radio host — he runs through half a dozen in his mind (Arab, Persian like Trish Hidge, Lascar, Katagalugan, one of the native tribes, mestizo like most of Carlos' family?) and realizes he's neatly circled the globe without hitting on anything he feels comfortable ruling in. Or ruling out.

Not that a person needs to have a simple, obvious ethnicity. Carlos himself, his paternal grandmother was Afro, but people tend not to pick up on it unless they catch him outside on a humid day. There's nothing wrong with Cecil being unidentifiably mixed. It's just, in context, it makes for one more potential descriptor left blank.

He realizes he's been looking at Cecil's face for a long time, and pulls his thoughts together. "Could be an exposure error. Does it show up on the negatives? We can get in touch with some of these people and see if they'll consent to be photographed again, for...."

"Carlos," says Fleur sharply. "Carlos, this one."

At last Carlos looks at the second portrait, and his breath catches.

On the right side of the group stand three people who are nothing but brightness. Head to foot, they shimmer with Dust, humanoid silhouettes of white. No visible daemons, but then, a small daemon riding in a pocket would be utterly obscured by the glow.

It's not just overexposure of the Asriel filter, either. Everyone else in the photo looks quite normal. Up to and including the woman standing next to them (who for the record is shortish, leaning on a cane though she looks about Carlos' age, and has a peregrine falcon daemon on her shoulder).

Carlos pulls off his glasses, polishes them with his sleeve, and puts them back on. "The visible-light version?" he asks faintly.

Brad hands it to him.

The normally-developed photogram shows all the townspeople as human eyes see them, neither illuminated nor obscured by the Rusakov particles floating invisibly around them. And on the right side of the group, it shows...nobody. All the individuals are the same up to the woman with the cane, after which the photo displays nothing but blank wall.

Hoax reports of this exact phenomenon are a dime a dozen. Carlos has seen all the classics. But even if he suspected his colleagues would falsify evidence, they never could have pulled off something this sophisticated at such short notice.

"Congratulations, Brad," he says, a grin breaking across his face. "Second day on your first-ever research posting, and you've already turned up solid evidence of angels."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Night Vale is nowhere near done throwing surprises at them.

There's a spot in the town's new housing development where the Rusakov ratings plummet. Ichiro blames mechanical failure or human error, but Fleur takes some photos, and they corroborate the data in a startling way: one of the houses shows up as Dust-free. Which makes no sense. Even a wild stretch of desert would have some ambient Rusakov particles, and a house doesn't need to be occupied to attract more. There's plenty of Dust around the identical-looking homes on either side. It's as if this one, and the entire space it occupies, doesn't really exist in this world.

After talking it over with Isaña, Carlos decides to call the radio station. It seems like this is something the locals should be warned about.

It's Adriana and her iguana daemon who notice that the sun isn't setting at the expected time. They find timetables online, check and double-check where the GPS says they are, and sure enough, that night it's definitely ten minutes late.

This has nothing to do with their research. Carlos decides to call the station about it anyway. Then, on second thought, he decides to have Adriana call the station about it. Cecil hasn't hit on Carlos in person, but the infatuation gimmick is still happening on-air, and he doesn't want to seem like he's encouraging it.

Nobody's sure how to deal with the prospect of real live angels. Carlos tells the team he's open to ideas, but for the moment, he thinks their systemic data-gathering is the best way to pursue it. Find patterns in the places the Rusakov ratings spike, and you can predict where the angels are most likely to be.

They don't call the station about this. So it's probably a coincidence when Jordan and Jordan's tufted deer daemon, out picking up milk at the Raúl's, hear Cecil reminding listeners of the City Council's rules regarding angels. (Carlos is starting to realize that every place in town usually has the radio on, and usually tuned to Cecil's show, no matter what time of day it is.) Officially, angelic beings do not exist, and citizens are not supposed to acknowledge them, or, for some reason, know anything about their organizational hierarchy.

"Well," says Carlos, after Jordan has repeated Cecil's warnings. "Let's play it safe. No talking about the angel research in public, okay?" Shouldn't be hard. None of them want to jump the gun on something like this and end up sounding crazy, right?

"It sure is lucky you overheard that!" adds Gerald earnestly. "Maybe we should get a radio for the chapel. Try to keep up with this stuff on purpose."

"Not to mention, keep up with Carlos' love life," teases Henriette. Her marmot daemon snickers.

The next morning when they drive in to work, there's an old-fashioned radio sitting on the front steps. (None of them ordered it. Or at least, none of them will admit to ordering it.) It seems to work fine, so Carlos shrugs and says they might as well make use of the thing.

Of course, this means everybody gets to hear Cecil's continued references to "beautiful Carlos with his perfect hair and his perfectly adorable daemon." For the sake of helping everyone stay in line with Night Vale regulations, Carlos figures he can live with it.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It's been a little more than a week when Carlos' first colleague goes MIA.

The team have started doing the readings in teams of two now, rotating who gets to stay at the chapel and work on other things. Carlos is out with Gerald, in the pickup truck because it's the only vehicle that can carry a musk ox, when he gets a frantic call from Emily. She's the grad student whose thesis Ichiro's been advising; Carlos doesn't know her very well yet, although the fact that her daemon is a black-tailed jackrabbit suggests she'll do well here in the desert. "Carlos, I can't find Ichiro! What do I do?"

Waving for Gerald to finish taking the readings on his own, Carlos sits on the curb next to their parking space, where Isaña can rest against his leg. "Back up, Emily. What do you mean, you can't find him?"

"I mean, we stopped at the Pinkberry because I had to go to the bathroom, and I was only in there for a minute, but now he's gone! He's not with the car, he's not in line, he's not anywhere. I asked some of the people getting froyo if they had seen him, but maybe I said it wrong, because they just shushed me."

Carlos hates to ask the obvious, but..."You're sure he's not in the men's room?"

"That's what I thought at first. Then after ten minutes of him not coming out, I checked. He's not there. And he isn't answering his phone...and I know he had it with him, because when I went in he was using it to show photos to some of the people in line, showing them the angels...."

The word gives Carlos a sinking feeling in his gut. "Stay with the car, all right?" he says, free hand spread across his daemon's armored back. "Stay with the equipment, and give Ichiro ten more minutes. Maybe he went next door, or something. I'll see if I can track him down, and if not, I'll call you back."

He hangs up, gets confirmation from Gerald that the readings are done and recorded, and they all climb back into the truck, Isaña on Carlos' lap. While they rumble down the road to the next observation point, Carlos phones the radio station.

The host picks up on the first ring. "Carlos~! It's so wonderful to hear from you!" he gushes in his normal enthusiastic Spanish. "How have you been? Are you settling in all right?"

"I'm not calling for personal reasons," blurts Carlos, trying to cut through the small talk. "I need some information. We have a team member that we've...lost track of. Is that something you could address on the show? Ask people to call in if they've seen him? He hasn't been gone long, so I assume we can't file a missing persons report yet...although if you can tell me anything about how to do that, it would also be a big help."

"Oh my." Cecil's voice has gone from chipper to solemn. "Well, I certainly wouldn't recommend a missing persons report. The Sheriff's office is so backed up on those, I think they're just starting to look into the ones from 1972. Who did you lose?"

Carlos gives a brief description of Ichiro, and explains that he was last seen at the Pinkberry talking about ángeles. Cecil informs him that angels do not exist. Gerald parks the truck.

"Well, the good news is, he's probably not too hurt," decides Cecil. His voice is warm, deep and soothing, and Carlos feels strangely reassured until Cecil continues, "What a relief! If one of you was dead already, I'd be out twenty dollars."

"Sorry, what?"

"Station management bet on one of you dying within two weeks of arrival!" explains Cecil, and wow, that does not make Carlos feel any better. "I had my money on you holding out for at least a month. Don't worry, I can help. You'd better come down to the station — I'll look everything up while you're on your way."

Chapter Text

Carlos and Gerald end up abandoning their observation route to rendezvous with Emily at the Pinkberry, where Carlos urges the student to stay calm and keep working. It's still possible (if unlikely) that Ichiro will answer his phone any minute now. In the meantime, she and Gerald will take the truck and get the rest of their town-spanning Rusakov measurements for the day (unless they hear from their missing colleague, in which case they can go pick him up), and Carlos will take the car to the radio station.

It's a measure of how worried everyone is that they don't seize the opportunity to tease him about Cecil.

The car is secondhand but in good shape; it's a sporty hybrid, Nipponese engineering, handles like a dream. Carlos had both copies of the expensive measuring apparatus put in the truck, so he can take it fast without worrying about how to explain to Harvard why he needs a replacement. Isaña sits on the passenger-side floor, nose twitching with worry.

At the very moment they pull into the parking lot out behind Night Vale Community Radio, the building's back door swings open and Cecil comes striding out. Today he's wearing a short-sleeved button-down and a tie, which Carlos would almost classify as normal if it weren't the ugliest tie he's ever seen (neon purple, printed with what appear to be peppers and tomatoes).

Belatedly, Carlos realizes he himself has been wearing his chapel coat around town all day. Again.

Aside from them, the parking lot is deserted. Isaña hops up onto the seat and over the cupholder, trying to climb Carlos to see out the window. "So? What's his daemon?"

And Carlos realizes he can't answer, because he still doesn't see one.

His rattled silence tells Isaña all she needs to know. She rolls up in a ball — she's the only species of armadillo that can curl up completely, limbs and face disappearing under her interlocking plates — and Carlos pulls her close, badly needing to feel the weight of her against him, as he steps out of the car.

Cecil meets him between the rows of mostly-empty parking spaces. "Carlos! You made good time," he says brightly. "Jump back in that car. We're taking a drive."

Carlos plants his feet and doesn't move. "Where's your daemon?"

It's abrupt. It's confrontational. He isn't sorry. There's something not right about Cecil, maybe related to the shockingly-dense concentration of Rusakov particles that are probably clustered in front of his forehead right now, and definitely the way he walks around without his daemon. Not to mention the way he's so casual about it — like he doesn't understand the kind of wrongness he's projecting all over the place. He's too male to be a witch and too lucid to be severed, so what in the world —

"Back in the station," says Cecil with a frown. "Where he always is. I can take you in and show you? But I thought you would want to hear about your intern as soon as possible."

"Colleague," corrects Carlos.

"And then maybe we could get dinner!" adds Cecil.

"No." Carlos isn't even sure about getting in a car with Cecil. Although he can understand, reluctantly, how in a small town where everyone has known each other forever, everyone else Cecil interacts with might be so used to his...condition...that they no longer find it disturbing. "You said you'd help us out, remember?"

"Of course, of course. In the car, then."

"Where are we going?"

"It's a surprise!"

Carlos holds Isaña more tightly to his chest. "What's your daemon's name? And what is he?" (People with same-gender daemons are rare, but not shocking or unthinkable, so it's not hard to switch pronouns.)

"Khoshekh. He's a margay." Cecil doesn't bat an eye, which means this is either a well-rehearsed lie or the plain truth. Carlos must look confused, because Cecil adds, "It's a kind of cat? Like an ocelot, but smaller? They live as far north as the Isthmus, but most of their range is in the Amazon, and...."

"All right! That's all I needed, thanks," says Carlos. "Hop in."

Isaña unrolls just enough for Carlos to kiss her ear before setting her in the back seat. It's not safe to have a daemon in your lap while driving, and obviously she can't sit where another passenger might bump into her.

"It's funny, I was never much of a cat person before Khoshekh settled," remarks Cecil from beside him as Carlos steers them out of the parking lot. "But once he had that form, I ended up getting to love it pretty quickly. And besides, no daemon is perfect! They become perfect when you learn to accept them for what they are. Turn left."

It's ridiculous for Carlos to feel like he's being kidnapped. He's the one driving.

They're slowing down for a red light when Cecil pops open the glove compartment and, without warning or asking, starts rummaging through it. Carlos' hands tense on the wheel. "Did you need something?"

"Batteries," says Cecil. "Ah, here we go!"

Carlos looks sideways just in time to see Cecil holding up something tiny and anbaric and definitely not a battery.

Either it's flimsier than it looks or Cecil is stronger, because his fingers snap it in half. Carlos is frozen in shock. "Was that a —"

"Dear, perfect Carlos, hold your admiration for just a moment," coos Cecil. He leans over the back of the seat and shows Isaña the shattered bugging device. "Isaña, could you do me a huge favor? I dropped a cufflink — looks like this one — and I think it rolled under Carlos' seat. Would you check and get it for me?"

Isaña does much better at playing along with the ruse than Carlos did. She rummages around under his seat, long snout and powerful claws going to work, and comes out holding something. Cecil holds his palm flat so she can drop the object into it without touching him directly. There's another plastic/anbaric snap.

Cecil sighs. "That's all of them! Well, there's one more on your muffler, so they'll still know our location, but it can't get the audio in here. You have the green, by the way."

Carlos hits the pedal too hard, and they speed down the street. It's a good thing every road out here is flat and straight. Back in Narragansett a move like that would have driven him fender-first into the nearest mailbox.

"We were bugged," says Isaña, speaking for him. "Is the radio station bugged too? Is that why we can't talk there?"

"No," says Cecil, "the studio is under in-person surveillance by several very dedicated members of the Sheriff's secret police. They really prefer to give spying on citizens that personal touch. Only resort to bugs in cars because they don't have enough people to hide in everyone's back seat all the time."

"Also, drivers would notice if they did that," puts in Isaña.

"You'd be surprised!" says Cecil, in the tone of someone sharing a quirky local fact. "Oh, and they will re-bug your car very soon, so please don't start taking it as secure. You can clear it out every once in a while, but not too often, or they'll start to get suspicious."

"Why does the Sheriff have secret police spying on us?" demands Carlos.

"For the same reason the Sheriff has secret police spying on everyone. Our safety! The next right is yours."

Not understanding him at first, thinking about phrases like the right to privacy, Carlos nearly misses their turn. The wheels screech as he hits the brakes harder than they're meant to take.

"Are they the ones who took Ichiro?" asks Isaña, apparently getting used to the idea of talking directly to Cecil. "Or are there others we have to worry about?"

"Oh, there are definitely others." Cecil leans back in his seat, steepling his fingers in front of them. "You might have noticed agents from a vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium hanging around town, and nobody is really sure who sends the gyropters painted with murals of diving birds of prey that sometimes fly over the sand wastes. But the secret police took your colleague, yes."

This is the least comforting combination of answers Carlos could have imagined.

"Don't worry, though!" adds Cecil. "It's just for re-education. And it's his first offense, so they're going light on him! I'm sure you won't have any trouble handling it. But you really should stress to your team that angels don't exist. Take the next left, onto the highway."

Carlos swings them around a bramble-edged curve of road. There are sound-muffling walls in front of the highway itself, but once he gets a line of sight past them he can see that the road is flat and nearly empty. Good, because he's not sure he could concentrate on merging right now.

"Angels do exist," says Isaña stubbornly. "We have solid evidence. That's just experimental theology."

"Of course they exist," says Cecil. "Vieja Josie keeps calling me to tell me what they're up to. And to ask if she can borrow more of my salt. But you, beautiful Carlos and darling Isaña and all your experimental-theologian friends, are not going to get that kind of leeway, so you should not push your luck. Whenever you're in an area that's under surveillance, which is, I remind you, nearly everywhere, don't mention angels without taking care to specify that they are not real. Oh, and don't send text messages about it! They have all the phones tapped, too."

Isaña asks the question Carlos is afraid to. "You work with them, don't you? Or you have some kind of in with them. That's how you know all this."

"Don't I wish! They've taken me in for re-education twice already this year," says Cecil cheerily. "No, I know because I am the Voice of Night Vale, and knowing what goes on in our sleepy little community is my job."

"Then you know where they're keeping Ichiro?" Carlos' hands hurt from gripping the wheel so tightly. "Is that where we're going?"

"Oh, no. He's scheduled to be returned to you tomorrow if everything goes well. Best to just wait for that. No, our destination was the highway. It's nice and non-suspicious — this route is a Moebius strip, so we can keep driving long enough to have a nice conversation and it'll look like we just keep missing our exit."

"You mean it's a circle," says Carlos. "A loop."

"You don't know...? Oh, of course. You're an experimental theologian, not a mathematician," says Cecil sympathetically. "A Moebius strip is like a loop, but the impression that it has two sides is an illusion. In an hour or so we'll be part of the traffic that currently appears to be 'underneath' us."

Carlos doesn't bother protesting that he knows what a Moebius strip is. More important is the fact that gravity does not work that way. "That isn't physically possible."

He chances a glance in Cecil's direction. The man looks entirely sincere. "And neither are angels! See? You're really picking this up fast now. So, if not dinner, how would you feel about getting coffee?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Whatever arm of the Sheriff's secret police is overseeing the team at the chapel that afternoon, they appear to be satisfied as long as Carlos says the right things, no matter what tone of voice he uses. He manages to get the situation across using a lot of pointed inflection. ("We're always being watched. For our safety. And this is good, understand?")

They don't all necessarily believe him when he says he's confident Ichiro will be okay, but they at least accept the plan of waiting until tomorrow to find out. It's not like they have any idea where to look for him. Carlos carefully doesn't mention that Cecil does.

For dinner he sticks a frozen lasagna in the microwave, and gets about half of it down before he can't eat any more.

"How strong do you think the surveillance on the houses is?" murmurs Isaña that evening. She isn't in her basket, she's spending the night on the bed with Carlos, even though he's probably going to wake up with shell prints on his skin from lying on her weird. They're still too emotionally rattled to put up with the distance, even though intellectually they've accepted that Cecil is most likely not some kind of soulless abomination.

"Good question," says Carlos from the pillow. "Let's experiment. Hypothesis: they aren't able to spy on every single hushed conversation a person has with their daemon."

Isaña hums in agreement, then says in a low voice, "Everything we said earlier was a lie. Angels are real, and they're here."

They fall asleep in peace, and wake up (shell prints and all) in the same room. Hypothesis supported.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Ichiro walks into the chapel while they're calibrating the measuring apparatus the next morning.

He's in the same clothes as yesterday, and looks like he could do with a long nap, but overall, no worse for wear. "I'm fine, I'm fine!" he insists, accepting a tearful hug from Emily while his capuchin daemon scampers across the ground and touches noses with the others gathered around their feet. "They were very pleasant. Very reasonable. Spent the night in a room with a king-sized bed and HBO, if you can believe it. How much time did you waste, getting worked up about it?"

When Ichiro is being brusque and slightly condescending, he's probably feeling normal. Carlos reassures him that they didn't lose much data, and tries to get him to take the day off, but Ichiro is a senior researcher and has no patience with Carlos giving him any more than the bare minimum of direction. The only reason he doesn't go right back out into the field is because he was already scheduled to work in the chapel today.

As per his own schedule, Carlos goes out and does a standard round of measurements, accompanied today by Dotan (the youngest of the grad students, whose daemon, a speckled palm viper, is habitually draped over his shoulders). They work efficiently, nobody calls with another emergency, and Ichiro is still fine when they re-convene at the chapel.

"Good news!" says Jordan, who heads up the group's technical efforts, once their readings for the day have been processed. "We now have enough data to simulate a meaningful animation. Party tonight?"

"It won't be a party, it'll be a research meeting," says Henriette. "Which means we can get reimbursed for the refreshments, right, Carlos?"

"Oh, no. I'm not going to be the one to explain that to the grant committee," says Carlos, scooping up Isaña. "However...we're going to go top up the petty cash box now, and if it should happen to run out faster than usual, we won't look too closely."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They get chips and salsa and cheap wine, set up a projector in the biggest room of the larger rental house, and drag some of the furniture into the hall so that all ten experimental theologians can fit comfortably around it. (Everyone could probably squeeze in regardless, but why risk accidental daemon-touching when you don't have to?)

The sun even sets nine minutes early tonight, so they don't have to figure out how to cover the windows.

On the wall of the darkened room appears a scanned map of Night Vale, overlaid with a GPS grid that roughly marks off the points they've been using to take readings. Henriette proposes a toast. They all drink to the success of the project — humans as well as daemons, who don't need physical sustenance but can fake it for the sake of symbolism — and Jordan hits play.

In the corner of the projected image, the date stamp starts moving forward.

Different areas of town brighten or dim, depending on how high the ambient Rusakov concentration was at the time of measurement. It's elegant, it's thought-provoking, it's...surprisingly jerky, especially compared to the other similar animations Carlos has seen. Isaña, sitting on his leg, twitches a few times in discomfort when the image gets jerky or the brightness levels skip around. Glitches in the software? Errors in how they entered the data, maybe in the timestamps? Hard to tell.

Still, patterns of motion are visible...as are anomalies. Several squares are persistently bright. One area switches between normal, or at least within the margin of error for normal, and the second-brightest region in town. There's a low point in the Desert Creek development, where the team found the house that apparently doesn't exist, and an even darker one worryingly close to the Raúl's. Someone should call the radio station and tell Cecil to warn people.

Isaña tugs on Carlos' shirt with a claw. Lifted up next to his ear, she whispers, "Is the brightest square over what I think it's over?"

Carlos focuses on that one more closely. At this point he still only has a general grasp of Night Vale's geography, and the map is too zoomed-out for any but the most general of labels...but now that he looks at the shape of the roads, yes, he's driven there before.

He applauds with the others when the video finishes, then stands and faces the room. "All right! I think our points of focus are obvious," he announces, pointing out three bright spots and two dark ones. "A, B, C, D, E. The house that doesn't exist probably accounts for Point E. Does anyone remember offhand what the other areas are like?"

"Point D is very close to the Raúl's," volunteers Jordan, doing something with the ordinater that adds the letters to its projected image.

"There's an Arby's in Point B," says Gerald, idly carding through his musk-ox daemon's coat. "And a bowling alley. And an arcade. Or maybe the bowling alley is also an arcade. Not sure. Haven't had time for bowling since we've been here."

"So, one residential and two light commercial," says Carlos. That may be completely irrelevant, but making observations is part of being an experimental theologian. "And Point A is...a little more built up. Office buildings, that kind of thing."

(He doesn't mention the NVCR station. They'll find out eventually. Any teasing on what a stroke of luck this is for his love life will just have to wait until then.)

"There's not much going on around Point C," says Fleur. Her grackle daemon is perched on the back of her chair. "A trailer park. A few houses. There's a car dealership around there, I think."

It sparks a connection in Carlos' brain. "Vieja Josie, cerca del lote de autos," he says: in Spanish, because he's quoting from the radio.

"Carlos! You can't call her that. You don't even know her," replies Adriana in kind.

"Sorry! It's how Cecil always refers to her, so — but you're right, I shouldn't pick it up. Josie lives near a car lot, and she's the one who's always calling him about —"

"English, please!" exclaims Fleur.

Whoops. "Sorry," says Carlos again, switching back. "What I'm saying is, there's a woman who lives by a car dealership who's always calling the radio station to tell them about angels."

"Angels are not real, and we know nothing about their hierarchy or the tiered heavens," says Ichiro. Now he's jumped into Spanish. With more fluidity than Carlos realized he even had in the language.

They may be talking research, but between all the language-switching and the fact that Carlos had almost finished his glass of wine, it takes some effort to hold his brain strictly in English mode. "That's right. They don't exist," he agrees. "And since they don't exist, the fact that we sometimes get overwhelmingly high readings in this area can't indicate that they stop by every so often to see someone. So a few of us will be going to visit this woman, Josie, for totally unrelated reasons. Can we agree on who to send, or do we need to draw straws for it?"

A quick negotiation ensues. Fleur and her advisee Brad, who took the original photos that turned out to have angels in them, both want to go. The normally quiet Dotan speaks up with surprising vehemence to say he wants a spot in the party. Or maybe it shouldn't be surprising; as far as Carlos can tell, Dotan is the most religious person in the group (though he's a Mohammedan, which makes him even less palatable to the Magisterium than the average secular Harvard researcher).

Jordan does something else on the ordinater to make it roll virtual dice. The party comes out Carlos and Dotan.

"Hang on," mutters Ichiro to Henriette, who's sitting next to him. Carlos is too preoccupied to listen closely; it's Isaña who pays attention to them. "Where's this party going?"

"Visiting Josie," says Henriette cheerfully. She's had more than a glass of wine by now, although her tolerance is probably higher than Carlos'. "Dunno if you've caught it on the radio, but she's the one who's always talking about angels, so —"

"Angels are not real, and we know nothing about their hierarchy or the tiered heavens," says Ichiro in Spanish.

"Uh-huh. You said that already."

"Carlos!" exclaims Isaña. "Something's wrong. Someone turn on the lights!"

Whoever's nearest to the door hits the switch. As their eyes adjust, they start to notice that Ichiro and his capuchin daemon are both sitting perfectly still, pupils dilated and unfocused. Fleur's daemon takes a flapping leap across the room to land on the carpet beside them; he pokes the capuchin, who doesn't respond...

...for several seconds. Then she winces, rubbing her golden-furred head. "Did you just peck me?"

Ichiro's moving too, rubbing his eyes. "A little warning before you hit the lights would be nice!"

"Ichiro," says Carlos carefully, "how are you feeling?"

"Half-blind, that's how!"

His daemon, though, has blinked her way through the adjustment and is peering at the rest of them. "Why isn't anybody else ducking and squinting?"

Carlos and Isaña are both lost for words. Turns out Cecil was wrong about something after all. They don't have the first idea how to handle the results of reeducación.

Henriette comes to their rescue before the silence can stretch on too long. "Okay, I've got an plan," she tells the room. "From now on, nobody say the A-word around Ichiro."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It would be sensible to freak out.

The secret police might have re-educated any number of other impossibly-precise changes into Ichiro's brain. He could be suffering mental damage every time the word "angel" (in any language) makes him say the prescribed phrase and tune out for a few seconds. Everyone on the team is keenly aware that they might be the ones who slip up and get taken away next.

Freaking out would be sensible, but frankly? They don't have the time. Because the next thing you know, a mysterious glowing cloud is pelting the town with the increasingly-large carcasses of dead animals, and the team needs all hands on deck, and Ichiro is perfectly competent as long as you don't hit his brand-new subconscious triggers, so why press the issue?

Before they jump into action, though, Carlos rings up Cecil. "I'm not calling for personal reasons," he says again. "I just want to know: are we allowed to acknowledge the multicolored glowing cloud overhead? If, hypothetically, there was a multicolored glowing cloud overhead."

"ALL WILL SEE AND KNOW THE GLOW CLOUD," says Cecil, in an echoing, monotone voice.

"Oh, good!" says Carlos. "That's all I needed. Thank you so much for your help."

And the team starts taking photos.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They've all lost a day.

As of sunset (only three minutes late tonight, according to Carlos' watch), the chapel darkroom is full of photos that nobody can remember taking, much less developing. Every last one is too overexposed for the contents to offer any clues about what happened. Whatever it was, either it kept them too busy to take any readings today, or those have been erased too.

Carlos has the horrible feeling that the whole team was dragged off for re-education. Before he can stress about it too long, though, somebody thinks to turn on the radio...and what do you know, Cecil is talking about how nobody in all of Night Vale can remember what they did today, and isn't that funny?, and gosh, all this vainilla sure does smell pretty.

Now that he mentions it, the chapel does smell kind of vainilla-y. Especially in the darkroom.

"Hey, look on the bright side," says Henriette, who along with her alpine marmot is taking this whole thing better than most of them. "At least you won't have to worry that you visited Josie and forgot about it, because even if you did, she'll have forgotten it too."

"And it won't give your radio admirer the wrong idea that you're calling him twice in one day," adds Gerald, "because he won't remember the first time."

"New rule!" announces Carlos, as Isaña rolls most of the way up with embarrassment. "Nobody is allowed to make fun of us about Cecil unless they're doing it in grammatically correct Spanish." When Adriana looks thrilled, he adds, "Or, if they happen to be a lifelong Spanish speaker, unless they're doing it in grammatically correct Muscogee."

Jordan's tufted-deer daemon trots the short distance to Adriana's iguana. "You're in luck," he stage-whispers. "Guess who minored in Muscogee as an undergrad?"

It's ridiculous, it's the most awkward position Carlos has ever voluntarily put himself in, and it may or may not do any real good for the team members still struggling with the language...but as a distraction it isn't half bad. Nobody's panicking over the memory loss. They're energized; they're ready to shrug off the lost work and focus on doing everything right tomorrow.

He calls Cecil to ask (or, possibly, to re-ask) for Josie's contact information, on the pretext that he wants to talk to her about recipes. (The corn muffins she brought to the town meeting earlier this month were delicious.) They'll call (or, possibly, re-call) her tomorrow.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The drive back to the houses is slower than usual. Traffic is backed up everywhere. Maybe they don't want to remember what happened to leave this much roadkill all over town.

Carlos and Isaña, riding in the back of the minivan, avoid looking at the road — in this area of the country "roadkill" is much too likely to include "dead armadillos" for them to be comfortable with. (Emily and her jackrabbit daemon are doing the same.) They spend the ride focused on Carlos' tablet, browsing Wikipedia as well as they can with this spotty Internet connection.

To their relief, nobody else on the team thinks to ask why, specifically, they're reading the page on margays.

Chapter Text

In Night Vale, town of a thousand unexplained phenomena related to Rusakov particles, Carlos and his team have narrowed their focus to five places.

Point A: highest Rusakov concentration in town. Right around the building that hosts Night Vale Community Radio. These two facts may or may not be related.

Point B: second-highest Rusakov concentration in town (sometimes). An ordinary patch of stores and businesses, including a local favorite, the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. Unusually high Rusakov concentration. May be related to the unidentified lights above the local Arby's.

Point C: variable Rusakov concentration, varies from normal to the replacement second-highest in town. Around the home of "Old Woman" Josie, who talks about angels all the time and has apparently never been re-educated over it.

Point D: lowest Rusakov concentration in town, by far. Another patch of businesses. Close to the Raúl's. Worrying, because that's where the team gets most of their groceries.

Point E: second-lowest Rusakov concentration in town. Residential: a newly-built housing development called Desert Creek. One of the houses doesn't exist.

They're still doing the systematic full-town mapping of Rusakov levels, but they've dropped the frequency to every other day, monitoring long-term patterns rather than trying to pin down day-to-day anomalies. It means they'll be able to focus more intently on other projects on the days in between...and take one day per weekend completely off.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

On Thursday, while most of their teammates are out taking measurements, Carlos and Dotan catch the bus that will take them down to the middle of Point C. The sky above is robin's-egg blue, and "Old Woman" Josie is expecting them.

It's mostly empty in the bus. Aside from them, it's just a woman all the way in back, presumably to stay close to the moose riding on the rear platform for oversize daemons; a guy wearing all black from the balaclava down, apparently trying to hide between two rows of seats; and a fair-haired City Council messenger child, daemon in the form of a tiny snail with a ghostlike translucent shell, staring out a window. Carlos sits by a different window with Isaña in his lap; Dotan takes the aisle seat, palm viper daemon hanging in her normal spot over his shoulders.

The folder with extra prints of the angel photos is in Carlos' bag. If anyone connected to the local government catches him with it, Dotan is under orders to pretend he's never seen them before.

A few stops go by in what Carlos hopes is a companionable silence, not an awkward one. As they're pulling away from the Old Musk Road stop, Dotan breaks it: "I'm sorry about the way the others tease you. It isn't right."

"You mean...about Cecil?" asks Carlos, while Isaña looks up in surprise. Dotan hasn't joined in on the ribbing, but they figured he just didn't find it funny. Or that, like his fellow students Emily and Brad, he wasn't (yet) comfortable picking on the project head like that.

"Of course I mean him," says Dotan darkly. "It's unfair. You can't be blamed for Mr. Palmero's...attractions."

Something about his tone of voice puts Carlos on alert. "I wouldn't say anyone's 'blaming' me. They just...."

"They think it's funny when we squirm," fills in Isaña. "When it's harmless, at least. And Cecil hasn't done anything to hurt us, not really. All he's done is...."

"...embarrassed us," finishes Carlos. "We'll survive."

Dotan isn't mollified. "You shouldn't have to put up with it. That man should leave you alone — the others should stop pretending you would respond to his interest, even in jokes — can't they see Isaña is female?"

This is going nowhere good. "That's a myth," says Carlos sharply. "No reputable study has ever found that same-sex-attracted people are more likely to have same-sex daemons. And why would it matter whose 'interest' I respond to? It's not illegal in Hispania Nova. It's not even against Night Vale laws."

(Granted, in Carlos' case, the whole subject is mostly academic. The last time he even tried to date was back when he was an undergrad. Family members used to ask when he was going to find a nice girl — his father and one of his sisters have even asked, in private, if he might be after a nice boy instead. Eventually he started brushing off the question, telling them his one true love was experimental theology. Over the past few years, they've stopped asking.)

Dotan holds up his hand for his daemon, who coils around his forearm. "Even in many countries that follow the Prophet, these behaviors are legal — that doesn't make them natural! Mr. Palmero is embarrassing his family, his whole town, to say these things on the radio where anyone can hear. And you — you're not suggesting that you would...?"

"Ay, perdón," interrupts a rough voice.

It's the man dressed all in black, now looming over their row of seats. There's a belt with some kind of ammunition draped across his chest, a short cape hanging from his shoulders, and both he and his daemon — some kind of weasel or mongoose, sitting up on her hind legs next to his feet — are wearing the same style of balaclava.

"I don't understand you folks's language so well," says the man, in drawling Spanish, "so you're gonna have to clear something up for me. Are you saying you have some kind of problem with Cecil Palmero?"

Dotan freezes. His Spanish comprehension may not be high enough to have caught all that, but the tone of casual threat transcends words. (And the fact that mongooses are known to eat snakes, even poisonous ones, is a bit of symbolism that can't be lost on him.)

"No," says Carlos firmly. He wouldn't mind the kid getting a lesson in tolerance, but he has a responsibility not to let it happen at the hands of some angry local. "No problem. Are you a friend of Cecil's?"

"A fan," corrects the masked stranger. "Valuable member of the community like Cecil, he's got a lot of fans."

"Well, we're fans too. We listen to his show all the time. ¿Verdad, Dotan? We listen to Cecil on the radio a lot."

Carlos lays out that last phrase slowly, and Dotan, nervous but fortunately not scared-stupid, picks up on what he's being prompted to do. "Si. We listen to Cecil on the radio a lot," he echoes.

The man narrows his eyes through the holes of the balaclava...then takes a closer look at Carlos. "You've got nice hair."

"Some people think so," allows Carlos.

"Cecil calls it 'perfect'," adds Isaña, trying to look as adorable as possible.

"Hmph. Well, I guess Cecil wouldn't be too happy if I stood up for his honor by bothering a friend of Carlos perfecto. But you!" The stranger addresses Dotan. "You watch what you say from now on. Understand? Cecil has a lot of fans. A lot."

With that, he and his mongoose-daemon get off the bus at the Oxford Street stop...which is also where another person in head-to-foot black, this one a woman accompanied by a small antelope daemon, gets on. She has long brown hair; he has short, straight, pointed horns; aside from their eyes, the rest of their features are concealed by another set of matching balaclavas.

Maybe the whole ensemble is a Night Vale fashion trend, but Carlos has the sinking feeling he just got away with talking back to a member of the Sheriff's secret police.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Josie's address turns out to be a charming little picture-book house: sunny yellow brick, red shutters and red roof tiles. Working in the garden out front is a woman Carlos recognizes from their much-studied photos. Her cane is propped against the low fence next to her, while her peregrine falcon daemon is in the dirt pulling up weeds.

"Perdón," says Carlos, stopping politely on the other side of the fence. "I'm Carlos, and this is Dotan. We're here to see Josie."

"My, is it that time already?" asks the woman, brushing back some of the wheat-blonde hair that's fallen out of its loose bun. Her daemon takes a flapping leap over to the fence and retrieves her cane, which she uses to get to her feet. "Well, here I am. Lovely to see you. Come right in."

Something's off here. In person, as in the photos, this Josie looks like she's somewhere in her mid-thirties. It's possible she looks young for her age, the way Carlos' prematurely-greying temples make him look older than he is, but it's hard to imagine anyone calling her "old woman" except as a joke. "Sorry, but is there an older Josie living around here?"

"It doesn't seem likely," says Josie. "Ojansi, be a dear...?"

Her daemon winks at them, and, in a rush of feathers, takes off.

Carlos and Dotan both jump as Ojansi soars past them, wheeling in a great circle that takes him upward. He's out of any daemon's normal range in seconds, and keeps right on spiraling higher. Down on the sidewalk, Isaña presses herself against Carlos' leg — they both know what's going on here, and it's perfectly natural, but that doesn't mean it isn't a shock the first time you see it.

"My apologies for the presumption," stammers Carlos. "We weren't expecting to meet a witch in the desert."

"Oh, nobody does," Josie assures them, and offers a handshake which Carlos accepts. "Juosukka Hirsti, but go ahead and call me Josie. Or Old Woman Josie, if you prefer. A lot of people around here find it helps them remember if they're always saying it."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Inside, Josie insists that both "sweet young men" have some iced tea and banana bread. She also asks if they wouldn't rather talk in English: it turns out she lived in Brytain for a few decades before moving to Hispania Nova. A Brytannian accent on top of a Lapp accent is hard to parse once in a while, but for the most part it's charmingly musical.

Dotan keeps his daemon close. Isaña wanders around on the floor, surreptitiously investigating; if she finds anything interesting, she'll let Carlos know later. All the upholstered furniture is ragged and torn along the top, and when Josie's Ojansi lands on the back of her chair, it isn't hard to see why.

Sitting on Josie's flower-printed couch, Carlos explains their interest in Rusakov particles, and the theory that it's related to the angels, which do not exist, but which she keeps calling Night Vale Community Radio to talk about. He spreads the printouts across her coffee table between their glasses of tea: a graph of the wildly-fluctuating Rusakov readings in the region of Josie's home, and a large photo of the group from the town meeting, the one developed with the Asriel emulsion to show the three luminous beings that are invisible any other way.

"Oh, this is beautiful," says Josie, taking the photo. "Do you have an extra copy of this? Erika's always wanted a photo of herself on the mantel."

"You're welcome to keep this one," says Carlos. "Sorry, did you say...Erica?"

"Erika," the witch corrects him. "With a K. All the angels, or at least all the ones around here, go by the name Erika." Turning to lean over the back of her armchair, she calls, "Erika! Come in here and see this!"

On autopilot, Carlos pulls out his tablet and starts taking notes. Beginning with Erika with a K.

He doesn't see the figure enter the room. Doesn't see the figure at all, at first. But then Josie addresses the air beside her, saying, "Erika, and Erika, this is Carlos Perfecto. Look what he brought you!"

And before Carlos can correct her about the name, a distinct alto that is not Josie's says, "Is that us?"

Dotan sucks in a sharp breath. And then Carlos sees it too — the luminous shimmer in the air, faint distortions and flickers that add up to a pair of solid forms. Humanoid. So tall their heads nearly brush the ceiling. Folded wings against their backs.

"I think it's us," says a second voice. Both of them are using English, with an accent that's impossible to place. "In the shape that these children expect to see."

"None of the angels staying with me now are sturdy enough to be seen too well in daylight," explains Josie. "They'd be easier to make out at night. Especially if you turn out all the lights. Anbaric lights seem to go right through them in a way the old naptha lamps didn't — it's a shame the City Council safety standards modernized everything in 1972."

The air shifts as one of the Erikas approaches them. Dotan starts murmuring something in Arabic; the only word Carlos catches is Allah. He's still typing — low visibility in sun & anbaric light — when Erika harrumphs in a way that sounds disapproving.

"Be nice," orders Josie. "Erika just said they were children, remember?"

"There's no 'they' about it," puts in the Erika still next to her chair. "All of you are as children to us."

"Apologies for...whatever we did," says Carlos, hands frozen over the on-screen keyboard. "It's an honor to meet you — we'd love to study, to ask some questions, everyone on the team would." With a nervous glance at the nearby open window, he adds, "If you were real, that is."

"Oh, don't do that," says Josie. "It hurts Erika's feelings. Of course people will go and do it around town, but you don't need to bother in here."

Of course. It's not hard to believe that angelic protection overrules the secret police, even from angels who are just this side of incorporeal.

"I suppose you're only human," says the Erika standing in front of them. A transparent hand — whispery, half-solid, like it might blow apart into Dust under a strong wind — rests against Carlos' forehead...and slowly, gently, smooths back a lock of hair. "Ask your questions."

Carlos is in no way prepared with a list of Questions For Angels. But it turns out Dotan has come up with a brilliant opener. "Why?" he asks. "Why are you here? And why now?"

Erika's voice gets deeper, and somehow bell-like, making the little house ring. "Our mission is foretold. The time of need will come. We must stand ready. The Republic cannot fall."

"Also," says Erika, perfectly normally, "Josie loaned us some salt. So we owe her."

"Salt," echoes Carlos. "What kind? Ordinary table salt, sea salt, kosher salt...?" He has no idea whether it matters, the specific sodium compound desired by a being composed wholly of Rusakov particles, but he might as well ask.

"Iodized table salt. Mortón brand, if that helps you," says Josie. "Although I got the store brand from the Raúl's last month, and they didn't hesitate to filch that either."

"Erika changed your light bulb," one of the Erikas reminds her, somewhat sulkily. Can angels sulk?

"And Erika patched up the roof last week," adds the other. Definitely sulking.

"Oh, I'm only teasing," Josie tells them. To Carlos and Dotan, she adds, "They've been a great help. I can't get around like I used to, as you can see." She makes a short gesture with her cane — which Carlos belatedly guesses is carved out of cloud-pine. Is she hinting that she can no longer fly? Would it be horribly rude to ask?

The small, familiar weight of Isaña leans against his ankle, and he decides against it.

"I'm glad things are going well," he says instead, and launches into a standard research-participant pitch. "I don't want to take too much of your time today, but...would any or all of you be willing to participate in some studies, over the next few months? Nothing invasive — we'd want to take more photos, and to have your cooperation in some tests on Rusakov readings — and nothing you haven't agreed to, either."

"More photos?" interrupts Erika.

"We would like more photos," agrees Erika.

Josie sits back in her chair. "That settles it, then! We'd love to. I'm retired, so my schedule is quite open. Except for town meetings. And bowling nights."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

On Friday, the team finishes off the banana bread Josie sent home with Carlos and Dotan, and split up into two groups. Carlos is with the contingent investigating Point E. The others take the minivan off to investigate Point D.

They're taking detailed readings throughout Point E, trying to be neutral toward the house that doesn't exist (because it might not be the problem, and they have to investigate all other possibilities first, for experimental theology), when Carlos gets a call. It's Henriette, the most senior person with the Point D group. "Hey, Carlos? Don't panic, nobody's vanished and nobody's dead, but we might have a problem."

Words cannot express how much Carlos appreciates her disclaimer. "Tell me."

"In the middle of Point D — a block down from the Raúl's, in fact — is the dog park. You know, the one with tall black walls, no visible entrance or exit, mysterious hooded spectres, and no dogs allowed?"

"The one we're not supposed to think about for too long," agrees Carlos. He picks up Isaña one-handed and sets her on the lowered tailgate of the truck, then hoists himself up to sit next to her. "Are you keeping a safe distance?"

"We're five hundred feet away, and we're not looking at it. I'm ninety percent sure this is the source of our anomaly with tanking Rusakov readings, and a hundred percent sure if we try to study it, we're going to hit that 'too long' point pretty quick. And...looks like a couple of hooded spectres are heading our way."

"Remember, if you're in imminent danger, drop everything and run."

"Heard and acknowledged." There's a worrying pause. "Nope, they were just passing by us while headed toward the place we're not thinking about. So. Ideas?"

Carlos glances in the direction of the house that doesn't exist. A stray breeze whips his hair in front of his face. He should really find a barber at some point. "It's our first day with Point D. We have plenty of time to figure out how to investigate...certain places...if they turn out to be important. For now, get readings everywhere that's more than five hundred feet away from that block, all right? It'll give us somewhere to start."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

On Saturday, the sky is uniformly dark grey. Since the locals are going about their business normally, and the radio doesn't broadcast any general warnings, the team goes to work as usual.

Carlos takes a set of full-town readings with Emily. He's not on the team going to do preliminary investigation of Point B, and they don't call all day, so he doesn't hear a thing about it until they reconvene at the chapel in late afternoon. Sure enough, the area's Rusakov ratings are definitely higher close to the Arby's. They've taken a series of photos of the sky above it — where the mysterious floating lights stand out against the day's dark sky — and set out to develop them in the Asriel emulsion.

The final prints show...nothing. Or rather, they have the usual faint glitter of Rusakov particles that permeate empty air, but no strange patterns, no otherworldly scenes, not even a particularly high Rusakov concentration.

They have nothing to explain the lights above the Arby's.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos and Isaña are spending their free Sunday trying to get their room in some kind of order when the doorbell rings.

A minute later, Brad's slightly panicked voice echoes up the stairs: "Carlos...!"

The grad student is still usually the jumpiest person on the team, but in this town that probably makes him the most realistic. Carlos jogs down the hall, Isaña speeding alongside him on short-but-impressive legs, and joins Brad at the front door to find...

...Cecil. A slightly out-of-breath Cecil, wearing green plaid shorts, a sleeveless orange turtleneck with beaded red flowers sewn across the chest, and a top hat decorated with some kind of hideous oversized chiffon bow. (It all makes Carlos feel much better about answering the door in ripped jeans and a coffee-stained shirt.) As usual, there's no sign of Khoshekh, which is probably why Brad is visibly shaking and holding his own hamster-daemon squashed against his chest.

"Hi, Carlos!" says Cecil brightly. He's holding an armful of some kind of papers. "Hello, Isaña!"

"It's okay, Brad. He's safe," says Carlos. "Cecil, what are you doing here?"

"It's Dot Day!" Cecil thrusts the stack of papers at Carlos, who takes them automatically. They're sticker sheets, it turns out. Lots and lots of sticker sheets, all half red and half blue. "I realized that since you're outsiders, you might not have gotten your supply for the year, so I brought some. Red dots on what you love; blue dots on what you don't. Make sure not to mix them up!"

So saying, he produces a sticker sheet that's already half-empty, peels a dot from the red half, and brushes aside Carlos' hair to press it down over his left eyebrow.

"Now you'll have to excuse me," continues Cecil, backing down the steps. "Can't stay — I have an urgent bus to catch. Don't want to be late for my annual Dot Day meeting with...Steve Carlsberg."

And he sets off at a brisk pace up the street toward the nearest bus stop, huge chiffon hat-bow fluttering behind him.

"He didn't...." Brad's voice cracks; his daemon is sniffling. "Why didn't he have...?"

Carlos is still trying to figure out what the hell just happened, but this, he can explain. "Cecil has a daemon. His name is Khoshekh, he's a type of mid-sized forest cat, and he stays at the radio station. Which is a major Rusakov anomaly, remember? Of course there are going to be weird things happening. That's why we're here."

It helps. Brad starts to calm down. "You're sure it's just that?"

"I've been looking for evidence against it, and haven't found any yet," says Carlos, which is the closest an experimental theologian usually gets to yes, I'm sure. He hands Brad a couple of sticker sheets. "Here, have some dots."

(The first red dot Carlos places is on Isaña's forehead plate. Sometimes there are advantages to having a daemon that isn't cute and furry all over.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The Monday sky is a nice pleasant turquoise, and practically everyone on the team has a (grammatically-correct Spanish, or, in Adriana's case, Muscogee) line or two ready to tease Carlos about how they're only going to Point A to "study" his radio boyfriend.

Gerald reveals that he didn't use up all his red dots yesterday, and offers Carlos the rest of the sheet so he can go make Cecil the happiest man in Night Vale. Henriette suggests that maybe Carlos fudged the data, there's no Rusakov anomaly in the area at all, he's just abusing his power as project head to have an excuse to drop in on the NVCR offices. Even Brad gets up the nerve to ask if Carlos is a cat person...and if not, how soon he's going to become one.

It's awful. It's very sweet. Carlos wishes he had another full sheet of red dots so he could put one on each of them.

Dotan stays out of the whole thing, but doesn't bring up his religious disapproval, which in his current state is probably the best-case scenario.

Carlos and Isaña are accompanied on the trip by Ichiro and his capuchin (so they all have to avoid mentioning angels) and Emily and her jackrabbit (who have been keeping the closest eye on their adviser, and maintain that he's as lucid and competent as ever on all non-angelic topics). They try to find a non-NVCR station on the drive uptown, but the only one coming in clearly is a monotone female voice reading out seemingly random numbers interspersed with chimes, so they end up listening to Cecil, who's in the middle of a long philosophical ramble about marbles.

Just to be safe, they do a quick sweep of the area. Sure enough, the readings spike whenever they get closer to the station. They park out back of the building, load their clunky measurement apparatus onto its trolley, and head inside.

It feels like there should be dramatic music playing. Carlos' chapel coat swirls behind him in the breeze.

The sign-in desk is staffed by a woman with an elk daemon, whose antlers are nearly poking holes in the plaster ceiling. She takes one look at Carlos, or possibly just at Carlos' hair, and says, "Of course you're welcome in! No appointments necessary for Night Vale's favorite experimental theologians. Just let me get your names, and here are the sterile needles for the drop of blood."

She isn't joking. The sign-in sheet is fed into an old-fashioned typewriter, and in the half-dozen rows already filled out, the rightmost column bears spots of rusty red (or, in one case, blue).

"Why don't you two stay in the lobby for now," says Carlos. He gestures to the speaker in a corner of the room, currently playing Cecil's description of the sad-but-heroic death of an intern named Wanda. "I'll go in and find Cecil, and if it turns out these are poisoned, you'll find out when you hear him start sobbing that I've collapsed."

"That's not funny," snaps Ichiro.

Carlos realizes with a start that he doesn't know when his sense of humor got so morbid. Mental note: no mention of angels or jokes about anyone's death around Ichiro.

"Let's go to traffic," puts in Cecil's voice from the speakers, and starts telling the story of a line of marching insects, with fantastical jointed bodies and iridescent wings from taxons lost to history, all imprisoned forever in a piece of electrum.

The guard types in Carlos Ramirez (as directed) under "name" and 3:72 under "time in", and hands Carlos a needle. It's one of those plastic-encased disposable types, the kind the Red Cross uses when testing the iron levels of blood donors, so he at least feels confident that it can be sterile if handled right. He lines up the end of the casing with the tip of his middle finger, hits the catch that makes it stick him, presses a dot of red onto the paper, and accepts a pink flowery band-aid before going on in.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

As Carlos steps out onto the third floor, where a sign points him to the recording booth at the end of the hall, his phone buzzes with a text. "Ichiro says the ratings might be off the charts," he relates to Isaña. "They're in the range where the machine isn't sensitive enough to be accurate."

"We'll need to order something better," says his daemon.

Carlos grimaces. "I don't know if we can afford better."

"We'll have to convince the grant committee we deserve it," declares Isaña. "Sweet-talk them like we've never sweet-talked before. Maybe include a photo of your hair."

"Listeners, you'll never guess who's come to visit!" trills Cecil. "Carlos! Perfect, wonderful Carlos, our very favorite visiting experimental theologian. He's brought some of his fascinating equipment, too. I wonder what kind of measurements he'll get?"

The booth has a wide glass window set in the wall facing the hallway. Carlos scoops up Isaña so she can get a look at the interior: the desk, the old-fashioned equipment, the glowing ON AIR and RECORDING signs. (No daemon in sight, but Khoshekh can tolerate being miles away from Cecil; there's no reason he can't be in the next room.)

In front of a console full of levers and switches sits Cecil, wearing noise-canceling headphones and a collared shirt made from at least four different fabrics, each more garishly colored than the last. He's speaking into a suspended mic that looks like it belongs in the 1940s, and both his hands are cupped around....

Carlos sways on his feet, one hand smacking against the soundproof glass as he falls against it, breath fogging the pane in front of him.

"Carlos?" exclaims Isaña. "Carlos, what is it? What do we see?"

It isn't. It can't be.

Cecil glances over at the window. "Sure enough, listeners, he's right outside!" he coos into the mic. "Excited, nervous, hearts beating painfully fast, we take you to...the weather."

He flicks a couple of switches — the RECORDING sign goes dark — and grins as he beckons with one hand for Carlos to come inside.

Carlos barely notices. He's still fixated on the...clock. Because it has to be a clock. Or a compass. A large, golden compass, with too many hands and three dials around the frame and, and, and....

So Cecil gets up, crosses to the door, and opens it for them. "Carlos~! What brings you here?"

Now he's close enough for Isaña to see the shape of the thing in his hand. She gasps.

"Is that what I think it is?" demands Carlos.

"Depends," says Cecil. "Do you think it's an obsidian coffee mug with stenciled jellyfish on the side that appear to be moving? Because it isn't that."

"I think it's an alethiometer."

"Oh! Yes, it's one of those."

"But that's not possible," says Carlos helplessly. There are only two of the devices on the whole planet: one at Oxford, one at Heidelberg, and both of them under more security than the Hope Diamond. The researcher who helped Carlos with his own thesis back in the day was permitted to see the one at Heidelberg, as part of her research. His own applications to see both have always been turned down.

Cecil sulks. "If you weren't going to believe me, I don't know why you asked."

"But...how...where...why...?"

"Listen, we may only be a local community station, but that doesn't mean we don't have standards," Cecil lectures him. "My job is to know what's going on, remember? And it has to be fast. The news waits for no one! Now, sweet Carlos, why are you here? Can I do something for you? You haven't misplaced any more colleagues, I hope."

"N-no. All accounted for, last I checked." Carlos swallows, hard. "Can you ask it something?"

"All right. But just one thing! The weather won't be playing forever."

And he waits, politely expectant, for Carlos to come up with a question. As if Carlos, who had some idea they might meet angels but was not prepared for a couple of helpful Erikas to just walk right into the room he was sitting in, isn't about a thousand times less prepared to be offered a freebie answer from a goddamn alethiometer.

Isaña, held in an iron grip against Carlos' chest, speaks instead. "What should we do?"

"Good choice!" says Cecil...and promptly starts turning dials. "Nice and general. Always applies —"

"Wait!" exclaims Carlos.

Cecil stops.

"Don't you...aren't you going to...what about the Books?"

There are more than two sets of the Books of Reading. Those, at least, still work the same way if you photocopy them. And with thousands of possible meanings for each of the thirty-six symbols around the face of the alethiometer, how can any person expect to use one without the massive reference volumes at hand?

"I could look up the meanings in the Books of Reading," allows Cecil, "but that would take a long time, and it's so much easier just to see them. Or at least, it is for me. You didn't think I only got this job for my melodious voice, did you? Besides...." He shudders. "The books are in the library. Now, do you want this answer or not?"

Carlos nods for him to continue. Humoring him, of course. Because it's a fake. It has to be: a mechanical replica, some kind of elaborate and detailed toy. Because it wouldn't be...you can't just...the place has one lone security guard and not a single metal detector! If they were sitting on a genuine alethiometer, that would be crazy.

...Not that Cecil is exactly Carlos' benchmark of sanity in any other area.

And they still need an explanation for why this spot has what might be the highest Rusakov concentration on the entire continent.

"Okay!" says Cecil brightly. "I narrowed the question a little, hope you don't mind — asked it for the most important thing for you to do in the near future. After all, it would be pretty pointless if it told you something that you weren't supposed to do until, let's say, one year later! You'd probably forget by then."

A few shaky steps toward him, and Carlos finally gets a good look at the face of the object. Cecil has pointed the three larger hands toward the Compass, the Beehive, and the Moon. The smallest hand is frantically spinning.

"It says you should volunteer," relates Cecil, more slowly than he speaks on the radio, interpreting (or "interpreting") the symbols on the fly. "And not to be afraid, because he'll be fine."

That's fortune-cookie vague. TV-psychic vague. It'll probably apply to twenty different things Carlos is supposed to do this month.

"And..." The radio host frowns. "When you ask for money from...whoever it is that you're going to ask for money...don't mention the alethiometer, because depending on how you phrase it they'll either decide you're insane and cut you off — the nerve! If I were you I'd look for backers with a little more respect, although that's not part of the answer here, that's just my opinion — or they'll send more people in, and...huh." He tips his head to the side. "I don't think it's saying that will singlehandedly pave the way for an apocalypse, but it certainly won't help."

Carlos is seriously starting to wonder if Cecil says these things just to mess with him.

"I'm back on in thirty seconds," adds Cecil, stepping backward into the booth. "Anything else before you shut that door?"

"Ye-es." Carlos' voice cracks; he clears his throat and tries again. "Yes. I was hoping you could help with...if we could study...but after we get more equipment, there's no way our current apparatuses can...sensitivity at these levels, it's not...."

Cecil raises his eyebrows, impatient but amused.

Giving up on eloquence, Carlos points to the alethiometer. "Could we do experimental theology on that some time?"

"Oh, Carlos," sighs Cecil, sinking into his chair. "You only had to ask."

"Great! Can I call you later to set up an appointment? Hopefully as soon as a few weeks from now?"

If Cecil gets any happier, he's going to melt right down onto that floor. "I would absolutely love to."

Chapter Text

By evening, Cecil has gushed about Carlos' request to the entire town; the non-Spanish-speakers on the team have had the details translated; and Carlos is trying to write a grant letter here, but he can't get a moment's peace.

"Are you sure you didn't ask the sweet radio man out on a date?" asks Henriette. As per their deal, it's all in Spanish. Her alpine-marmot daemon cuddles up dramatically against Isaña's side; the fact that he's about the size and shape of a large stuffed bear only adds to the effect. "He sounds like he thinks it's a date."

"Carlos wants to do 'experiments' on him," puts in Brad. Either Carlos is imagining things, or his accent is actually getting better with this. "We know what 'experiments' means, yes?"

"I can't help it if Cecil makes everything in the world sound like innuendo," groans Carlos, pulling off his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose. "And no, I did not ask to do experiments on him."

Adriana, whose iguana daemon looks downright smug, says something lascivious-sounding in Muscogee. Carlos really should have ordered them all to limit their teasing to Muscogee. That way he wouldn't understand it.

"Adriana says it also works if he does experiments on you," puts in Jordan, tufted-deer daemon all but prancing with mirth.

Carlos pushes back his ordinater and stretches his arms. The Internet is down, which around here means he probably won't be able to send the email for a couple of hours, and a glance back up the screen tells him the whole thing needs to be revised anyway: it's all coming out in Spanglish.

As per Cecil's advice, he's being discreet for the grant committee. But he's going to have to open up to the team sooner or later.

"What I told Cecil," he announces to the other four, "is that I wanted to do experiments on his alethiometer."

Dead silence.

"You're kidding," says Henriette, back in English.

"No, I think it's a 'false friend'," says Jordan. "Like the way librería doesn't mean 'library'."

"Aletiómetro is exactly what it sounds like," says Carlos. "And no, I don't have conclusive evidence that it's genuine. I also don't have conclusive evidence that it's not. Which is why we are going to test it. Extensively. From every municipally-approved angle."

Not to mention, as many non-municipally-approved angles as they can possibly get away with.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Ichiro and his capuchin daemon find Carlos on the back steps of the larger house, watching the thirteen-minutes-late sunset.

"I'm concerned that you're not looking at this clearly," he says, while his daemon climbs the porch railing and hangs down by her tail beside them. He doesn't have the religious solemnity that Dotan does, but the disapproving sternness of a certain kind of lifelong scholar. "I know a lot of the team is having fun with Palmero's crush on you, and I know you think he's playing it up as part of a radio gag, but you have to think about other possibilities. He could have a genuine obsession with you. He could be dangerous."

"There's no evidence to indicate..." begins Carlos.

"He wants your attention; he wants you to spend time with him. You want to study Rusakov particles. All of a sudden, he just happens to have the one device any researcher in our field would give their right arm to study?"

"If it's fake, we'll find out, and we'll back off."

"If it's fake, it's an amazingly detailed one," counters Ichiro. "Cheap knockoff alethiometers can be found all over the place — I used to accept requests to authenticate them every other week. Most of them can be spotted in under five minutes. How much effort would this guy have had to put in, to build a replica good enough that you haven't already written it off? I know you're not as experienced in that business as I am, but you do at least know what you're doing."

From someone as stern as Ichiro, this is high praise. "Thanks."

"Don't thank me, start thinking about the risks!" snaps his fellow senior researcher. His daemon raps her knuckles against Isaña's forehead plate, underlining the point. "Think about what happens if Palmero's done all this work to reel you in, and then it doesn't take! What's he going to try next?"

"Look, Ichiro, we can't not follow up on this," says Carlos testily. "We always knew this town might push the limits of what's possible — the sheer heights we're getting in Rusakov readings, the nonexistent architecture, the angels —"

"Angels are not real, and we know nothing about their hierarchy or the tiered heavens," says Ichiro in Spanish.

Whoops.

While the other pair are zoned out, Isaña hops up onto Carlos' leg. "I guess if you're unable to know about the angels, the baseline strangeness of Night Vale must look much lower."

"Makes sense." Carlos scratches under her chin, looking up at the violet sky, where the first stars are coming out. "But...what if he still has a point? About the risk?"

"If Cecil's...fixation...involved someone we were supervising, it would be different," allows Isaña. "But we're not asking anyone else on the team to take the risk. It's all on us."

And compared to the fact that Carlos might literally give up his right arm to get this kind of access to an alethiometer, playing into the hands of a potential stalker sounds like a bargain.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

By unspoken agreement, Carlos and Isaña keep quiet about Cecil's even-more-unbelievable claim: the notion that he can read his alethiometer as easily as the average person reads a compass.

"The thing is, it's not impossible," blurts Isaña after their morning shower, pacing around the bathroom floor while Carlos shaves. "There's precedent. Not a lot of precedent, maybe...and even less that isn't controversial...but...."

"But Lyra Belacqua," finishes Carlos.

As the foremost researcher in Rusakov studies of the last century, Dr. Belacqua still commands the respect of everyone in the field. They've all read a biography of her at some point or another, following her career and her travels around the world. A framed print of one of her quotes (backed by a photo of the Northern Lights) is lying on top of one of the half-sorted piles that currently dominate Carlos' room: Where we are is always the most important place.

Her childhood is much less well-documented than her adult life: shrouded in mystery, speculation, and, by this point, a lot of blatant fiction. (When Carlos was six, his and Isaña's favorite book was a collection called Lyra and Pan Adventure Stories. At eight, they were obsessed with the Cartoon Network reruns of 1970's Lyra-and-Pan cartoons.) It doesn't help that, when she was quite young, she was involved in some kind of conflict with a vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium for which all records have been destroyed.

But even the most skeptical researchers can accept that, until Belacqua's daemon settled, she had the vanishingly-rare gift for reading an alethiometer by intuition.

"They had the range, too," points out Isaña. "She wasn't a witch, but Pantalaimon had a witch's range."

Carlos splashes water on his face and spritzes on some aftershave. "We don't seriously think Cecil will turn out to be the next Lyra Silvertongue, though."

There's an uncomfortable pause, during which they both avoid saying, ...do we?

"Of course not," says Isaña at last. "For one thing, Dr. Belacqua knew how to dress herself."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

While the others are calibrating the equipment, Carlos checks his inbox. Amid the usual spam, Facebook updates, and the latest status report from the control team (no anomalies in their town, but they've been working hard and meeting lots of friendly people), he has a reply from the grant committee.

"Good news!" he announces. "The new equipment's been approved!"

"Drinks tonight!" declares Henriette, alongside the general cheers.

Today, while most of the rest are on full-town readings, Carlos teams up with Fleur and Brad — the mentor-student team with the photography focus — to pack up the camera equipment and catch the bus to Point B. The sun is hot, the sky is a pale taupe, and there are quite a few customers stopping in at the Arby's to get cold drinks, including two hooded spectres — which is odd, since in the area immediately around all the spectres, the air temperature already drops about ten degrees.

Fleur sets up the camera with the tripod in an empty corner of the parking lot. The plan today is to get photos for analysis of the building itself, and the grounds around it, rather than the lights overhead. Brad takes the handheld camera to circle the building, while Carlos goes inside to order them all some frozen smoothies. (Chocolatl for Brad, mango for Fleur, and Carlos is going to be brave and find out what "ginger-cucumber latte" tastes like.)

"Oh, perfect," sighs Fleur when Carlos hands her the icy drink. She's already sweating, hair coming out of its twists and plastered in stray coils to her forehead and the back of her neck. Carlos takes a sip of his own smoothie as he circles the building to find her student. It isn't half bad.

Brad is nowhere to be found.

Carlos is already scrolling to the name in his contacts list as he comes full circle around the Arby's. "Fleur? Any chance Brad told you he was going inside?"

His colleague snaps to attention. "You can't find him."

"Get in the air," says Isaña to Fleur's grackle daemon. "Look everywhere. We'll walk with you."

They circle the building again, as a group this time. Turns out Fleur's daemon has an impressive range; he flaps around almost eight feet over her head, scanning the cars and the bushes, the bus shelter and the trash can. Carlos' phone rings, rings some more, then goes to voicemail.

This time, when they get back to where they left the tripod, the camera is lying shattered in pieces across the asphalt.

Fleur runs to it, her daemon landing in the middle of the wreckage and pecking through the fragments. "The film's gone," says Fleur. "Carlos? Do we wait it out this time? Should we call Cecil? What should we do?"

Carlos and Isaña both stop in their tracks, remembering the same thing:

Volunteer. And don't be afraid. He'll be fine.

Setting down his and Brad's smoothies on the trunk of the nearest car, Carlos scoops up his daemon. "Bag anything you think you can make use of, and call...." Which pair is taking the full-town readings for this section of Night Vale today? "Call Henriette to pick you up. And, here, take these." He hands Fleur his phone, then the wallet out of his pocket, and his keys. "Hold on to them for me."

Fleur sticks the items in side pockets of her camera bag, but she doesn't look happy about it. "What are you planning?"

"I got some good advice," says Carlos, hoping he sounds more confident than he feels. "I'm going to follow it. That's all."

Reluctantly, his colleague starts walking back to the bus stop.

Carlos circles around behind the Arby's, where a line of low shrubbery separates it from the naptha station facing the next road down. He isn't sure where to start — they know the secret police get better audio of some places than others — until he spots a meerkat perched on one of the naptha pumps. The pump has a giant OUT OF ORDER sign taped to the front...and the meerkat is wearing a balaclava.

"Roll up," he says softly to Isaña.

"Carlos...."

"I can't do this if you're not rolled up."

She nods, and curls into a tight ball of interlocking plates, between the sizes of a grapefruit and a fútbol.

Holding her close to his chest, Carlos says, "Hey, Officer! Do you realize you've picked up the wrong guy?"

After a long pause, a tinny voice echoes through the air. "What d'you mean, 'wrong guy'?"

"I mean: you don't like that he was taking photos, right? Or maybe you want to interrogate him about something, about our research? Either way, you're not going to get anywhere."

"Keep talking."

"The man you took is a...a student. Practically an intern." All the grad students would seethe if they heard Carlos talking like this, but in context, he thinks they'd forgive it. "He doesn't make the decisions, he doesn't have any authority in the project. He barely speaks the language, and even if he did, he doesn't know anything."

He splays one hand over Isaña's plates and swallows.

"I'm the project head. Send Brad back to the chapel and take me."

A metallic creaking carries across the asphalt, and the front of the false naptha pump pops open. Out steps a wiry woman in head-to-foot black, including the balaclava and the short cape. "You could be lyin'," she says, appraising Carlos. "Want to trick us into givin' up the best guy."

"Don't you listen to the radio?" demands Carlos. "You just grabbed a young peninsular guy with a hamster daemon! Look at my face — look at my daemon — look at my hair."

The secret police officer narrows her eyes.

"Affirmative," she says at last. "Take the shot."

A sharp, blowdart-sized point stabs Carlos in the back of the neck, and everything goes blurry, then dark.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

...he's wavering in and out of consciousness, blindfolded, pinned against something flat.

In pain.

Isaña's here, but she's being held almost at the edge of his range, and it hurts...

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them.

The recording clicks back to the beginning and repeats.

The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them.

"...weren't spying..." croaks Carlos.

The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them.

An anbaric crackle fills the air, and his whole body jerks. Something smells burned.

The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them.

The shock goes through Isaña this time. Carlos blacks out in sympathy.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

...everything is dark and soft.

Carlos opens his eyes slowly. His glasses are gone, not that having them would make it any brighter; there's a dim yellow light near the floor and that's it. All his limbs are sore, and something inside his chest feels scraped raw, where his connection with Isaña has been yanked at so badly.

A leftover twitch goes through his leg, and his knee bumps against keratin plates.

"Carlos!" whispers Isaña.

Beautiful Isaña. Carlos shifts on the yielding surface (it feels almost like a bed) as she scrambles weakly up to him; he presses her against his collar, murmuring her name as her nose twitches against his neck. "Isaña, shh, are you okay? Did they hurt you?"

"Hurt like hell," says his daemon with a weak laugh. "But we...we're gonna be okay. Gotta be...brave. Brave like Lyra and Pan."

It gets a laugh out of Carlos too. She's not talking about the real Dr. Belacqua, eminent though the woman was; she's talking about Lyra from their childhood picture books. The Lyra with the wild adventures, who was constantly having to battle villains from other worlds that tried to separate her from Pantalaimon, fighting giants and sphinxes and harpies and vampires and every other mythical creature publishers can think up.

As Carlos and Isaña hold each other, though, his eyes keep adjusting to the dimness, and in the low light he starts to make out outlines. Something like a table beside them. Something like...a lamp?

He fumbles for a switch, and finds one on the metal base.

This time, when his eyes have adapted to the sudden brilliance, he wonders if he's hallucinating. Because it looks for all the world like they're in an upscale hotel room. King-size bed, facing a wooden cabinet with a large flat-screen TV, cushy carpet, tasteful wallpaper...the original light source is a small child's night-light, plugged into a wall outlet...and on the bedside table next to the lamp is a remote control, Carlos' glasses, and a small placard that boasts Instructions To Access Your Free Wi-Fi.

"Ichiro said they have HBO," remembers Isaña.

Carlos remembers. And after he puts on his glasses, he takes in that there are no windows or even curtains, and the door (not the bathroom door, the other door) is made of solid metal and bolted shut. "You're right. We're still with them."

Isaña nuzzles her face against his cheek, feeling the scruff. "Doesn't feel like we've been here long...a day, maybe?"

They only kept Ichiro overnight, so Carlos must be due for release any minute now, right?

He should get up and at least try to look for a way out. But he's so sore. His clothes — the coal-silk shirt, jeans, and chapel coat he wore to the Arby's — are in tatters at the edges, speckled with small burns. There's no sign of his shoes.

The Arby's...taking photograms...spying? We weren't.... "Oh," says Carlos softly. "If we take photos of the building...and develop them to show the Rusakov particles..."

"...we can see where hidden people are," realizes Isaña. And while a naptha pump with a lone daemon on top of it is a pretty obvious hiding place, that doesn't mean all the secret police hideouts are so easy to find. Until you start capturing the particles that gather around humans on film.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The holding cell's minifridge has power bars, soda, and chocolatl. Any of it could be drugged, but it's not like Carlos can get any more in the secret police's power than he is already, and he might as well try to keep his energy up.

The TV, when powered on, displays a menu of viewing options. Carlos pages down to Bambi and hits play.

Halfway through, the image freezes of its own accord, and the sound is replaced with static. A crackling voice says, "Carlos the Experimental Theologian?"

Carlos catches his breath. "Y-yes? That's me."

The voice on the speaker clears its throat. "The secret police."

It doesn't seem to be part of a sentence. Carlos frowns into the silence, putting an arm around Isaña as she leans closer. "Go on. I'm listening."

"I'm sorry, maybe I didn't enunciate," says the voice uncertainly. It repeats, loud and slow: "La policía secreta."

Suddenly Carlos has a guess about what it wants. "The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety...and there is no need to spy on them?"

"Are you sure? You don't sound sure."

"I guess I'm not," admits Carlos.

A heavy sigh. "God, I hate it when these things don't take. So many extra forms to fill out!"

With a metallic thunk, the door to the room comes unbolted. Carlos tries to get up, as fast as he can, which isn't very fast. Two secret police officers in military-grade respirators, their masked daemons a cheetah and an orangutan, stride in — there's no quick drop from a sniper blowdart this time — he kicks and struggles against their hold until the gas mask clamped over his nose and mouth does its work...and again, he's out.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them.

The strain chafes like no physical hurt ever could. He's getting friction burns on his soul.

The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them.

"We weren't spying," breathes Carlos.

The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them.

Another shock. His muscles seize in response.

The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them.

He won't panic about the scars this might be leaving on his nervous system. Or about how easily they could drag his Isaña a foot or two farther away. He won't.

The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them.

Brave like Lyra.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It's a different room this time: same kinds of furniture, mirrored layout.

Carlos and his daemon drag themselves to the minifridge. There's beer in this one. Very tempting. But he has no idea what kind of drugs are still in his system, or if the interactions would be less than fatal, so raspberry lemonade and a granola bar it is.

He's licking the crumbs off his fingers when the TV turns itself on, the screen still black but humming slightly, and an impatient voice (Carlos thinks it sounds female, but wouldn't put money on that) says, "The secret police."

"The Sheriff's secret police are here for our safety. There is no need to spy on them," says Carlos dully. It still isn't a reflex; he remembers saying it, and he doesn't think he's losing time, although in a bland and isolating room like this, how would you know? He's not sure.

The disembodied voice groans. "I don't think it's taking, Chuck."

"Please," says Carlos, as loud as he can manage. "Please, no more. We'll be good. I swear. Whatever you want."

"I don't even know," says the voice. It seems to be in conversation with someone else, someone whose dialogue isn't getting picked up by the system broadcasting at Carlos. "Let's just pick it up tomorrow, okay?...All right. Listen, Mr. Experimental Theologian, you go ahead and get some sleep. We'll figure this out in the morning."

The TV shuts off.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A dream:

Cecil comes to the rescue!

Khoskekh is with him, looking exactly like the cat one of Carlos's housemates had back when he was working on his Ph.D. And they all ride off into the sunset, which is precisely on time, on the back of Iorek Byrnison, the panserbjørne companion of Lyra Silvertongue, who is still alive for reasons that the dream never bothers to explain.

Back in Narraganset, they find an empty quad on the Harvard campus and sit in the grass, looking up at the night sky, where the Northern Lights are shimmering and dancing. Cecil holds his hand and explains to him that all the Lyra stories are true, especially the one with the sphinx and the submarine, which was always Carlos' favorite.

Carlos spends the whole time thinking about Night Vale, and was the rest of the team ever told where he went? and how there are so many things he still needs to do.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

This time, when the secret police officers come to pick them up, Carlos and Isaña are ready.

Being brave is good, but courage on its own isn't going to be enough. Lyra and Pan were never just brave. And while they had lots of trusted allies who could try to pull them out of a tight spot, they didn't sit around and wait to be rescued, either. They used cleverness, and some fast talking, and as much blatant trickery as they could think up.

Remembering the places the bugs were hidden in their car, Carlos and Isaña have swept the rooms: he with his keener eyesight, she with limbs and senses designed for rooting out tiny hidden things. Now the miniature camera in the bathroom is "accidentally" covered with shaving cream — Carlos doesn't have nearly as many lingering tremors as he wants them to think — and he's back in bed, playing up his exhaustion, not drawing attention to the disposable razor blades hidden in the pockets of his increasingly-tattered chapel coat.

(Why do the prisoners' bathrooms even have disposable razor blades?)

(Probably for the same reason they have free Wi-Fi: Because Night Vale.)

They put on the rest of Bambi while they wait. Something nice and innocuous that they can tune out, in order to pay attention to the door. Or at least, that's the plan: the movie eventually develops into a bloody war of vengeance between the forest animals and the humans, which both Carlos and Isaña are positive was not in the original.

Still, they're ready when the door opens.

It's the same two, with the cheetah and the orangutan. Carlos looks blearily up at them from the pillow, trying to scope out weak points. Their faces are mostly covered and he doesn't have the stomach to go for the eyes, but there's a strip of bare skin on their necks under the masks. Better go for the bigger one first....

The officers stand over the bed.

Carlos lunges.

They have him pinned in under a minute, and he loses the blade he was holding when one of them breaks his wrist with a sickening crack that sends shooting pains all up and down his arm, but in his last conscious moments he can see that he managed to draw blood, so that's something.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A splash of cold water to the face wakes him.

Carlos sits up with a start. The motion yanks his wrists against their manacles, chafing the good one and causing searing pain in the swollen one, and his vision greys out briefly while he tries to find a position that puts as little pressure on them as possible.

He isn't in the usual lightless pit of shocks and droning recordings. He's in a dingy stone-walled interrogation room, lit by a single-bulb lamp overhead, sitting in an uncomfortable chair at one side of the metal table he's cuffed to. A scan of the walls finds a range of different manacles, chained collars, and cages, presumably to hold different shapes and sizes of daemons. His own Isaña is in a barred cage on the table next to him.

Across from them, setting down the bucket he just emptied over them, is their interrogator.

"Carlos Ramirez," says the man, without preamble. He has a broad build and a slight accent, maybe Italian or Greek; any other identifying features are concealed by the standard uniform and mask. (No rebreather this time, so Carlos dares to hope he isn't going to be gassed again soon.) The daemon standing behind him is a stocky white antelope with huge, corkscrewing brown horns, sticking out the back of her head for a good two feet.

He seems to expect a response. "That's me," says Carlos weakly. There's water dripping in his face, his hair is going to frizz like mad as it dries out, and he can't even brush it away.

The man nods. "Carlos, el Teólogo Experimental."

"...Also me."

"Carlos Perfecto."

"People have called me that," allows Carlos.

His interrogator makes a disapproving noise. "Why so many aliases?"

If Carlos weren't in so much pain, that might have been hilarious. "I didn't come up with them!" he splutters. "It isn't my fault half the people in this town can't keep my name straight!"

"Hmmm." The officer folds his hands (ungloved, the skin ruddy, the nails chipped) and leans across the table. "Can I tell you something, Mr. Perfect?"

Does Carlos have a choice? "Whatever you want, officer."

"The Sheriff's secret police keep you under surveillance to help ensure the local government maintains absolute power, there is no valid reason for pocket calculators to be banned, and we know that there are angels who shop at the Raúl's."

After a long, stunned pause, Carlos says, "You're admitting it?"

He and Isaña get about a second to watch the officer reach through the bars and reflect that they aren't even a tenth as cunning as Lyra and Pan.

Carlos sobs with shock and horror. Isaña cries out and rolls up in a tight ball, as tight as she's ever closed, not that it helps, the man's still touching her — another human's hand right on her — Carlos' other senses blur, he's dizzy, barely knows up from down, can't feel anything clearly except the sickening wrongness of it, oh god —

"The secret police?" demands a firm voice over the roaring in Carlos' ears.

"Here for our protection," chokes Carlos. He'd be a heap on the floor by now if he weren't tied to this chair.

"Pocket calculators?"

"Very dangerous. Please, please —"

"Angels?"

"Don't exist," sobs Carlos, insides reeling with disgust, with the sheer violation of it. "They don't exist, they don't —"

"That's right," says his tormenter. "And if your team ever decides you want to take photos in this town again...."

As if he has to make any more threats — Carlos would promise literally anything right now to make this stop —

"...you will get a permit first."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

...the next time Carlos comes to, he's in the back of some kind of moving vehicle, and it's dark.

That's all he registers before passing out again....

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

...the landing shocks him half-awake, hitting dusty ground and patchy grass, the branches of a short bush crunching under one leg.

Tires squeal on the road he's been dumped beside, and the taillights of the police vehicle shrink to pinpricks as it speeds away.

The scrublands...middle of the night...could be anywhere....

Everything hurts. His throbbing wrist manages to stand out, but beyond that his body is a field of undifferentiated pain. A small mercy is that Isaña's landed comfortably within their range; he desperately wants her closer, but neither of them have the strength to move.

Wherever they are, it's too far from town to be lit by anything but stars.

We're going to die before anyone finds us, thinks Carlos, strangely emotionless about the idea. As if he's burned through his ability to feel things.

His consciousness may or may not be fading in and out.

Which means it's impossible to guess how much time has passed when another set of headlights appears down the road.

Carlos wants to cry. If they've changed their minds...or if it was never over at all, if this is just a way of playing with his head before bringing him back in....

The car stops on the road beside him, two long streaks of light on either end cutting through the darkness.

And a blessedly familiar voice says, "Look at that, Khoshekh! There's someone by the side of the road! We'd better go see who it is."

The next thing Carlos knows, there's an ice pack being pressed against his wrist...and a low feline purring as a warm, furry body curls around Isaña, shielding her from the chill of the desert night.

"My poor Carlos," murmurs Cecil. "How lucky for all of us that we found you. And that it just so happens I always carry extra-strength painkillers in my glove compartment."

Chapter Text

By the time neon fast-food signs start racing past outside the windows, Carlos feels a lot more stable. The painkillers are working; he's bone-tired, and it's going to be a while before he feels up to anything more difficult than lying prone across Cecil's back seat, but he's lucid. The ice pack is on the floor, where his broken wrist is lying against it.

More importantly, Isaña is a soft, solid weight against his side.

While Carlos had staggered to the car, leaning heavily on Cecil's somewhat smaller frame, Isaña had it easier: Khoshekh only had to get his jaws around the top edge of her shoulder plate and carry her like an overlarge, armored kitten. In the dark and with his glasses long gone, Carlos could barely pick out the other daemon's shadowy mass slinking through the scrub, but his connection with Isaña was (and is) so badly sensitized that he could feel an echo of the way she was being moved.

Then Cecil must have picked Khoshekh up, because Isaña was lifted higher through the air, so the margay-daemon could drop her gently at Carlos' side without risking any undue...touching.

The team knows how he is, because Cecil called them ("You'll never guess who I accidentally found on the side of the road!...Okay, never mind, you will guess. Well, obviously you've been praying in your bloodstone circles for it, just like I have..."). Carlos, in turn, knows that Brad is fine. And now, with a shock of relief, he realizes he finally knows where they are. The sweeping red neon outline, the lights beyond it, dancing in the sky....

"I hope Arby's is all right with you," says Cecil from the front seat. "They're the nearest place open this late."

"Arby's is fine," says Carlos. It comes out steady-ish, and almost clear.

Cecil pulls up at the drive-thru, braking in front of the menu...and leans over the back of the driver's seat. "Carlos. Look at me for a minute, Carlos."

He's using his on-air voice. The serious one. Carlos makes himself sit up a little, propped against the door, and focuses on Cecil's face as lit by the parking lot's brilliant streetlamps.

"Have you ever thought about getting your hair cut?" asks Cecil, while pointedly nodding.

There must be bugs in his car, getting audio, but not video. Hasn't Cecil noticed, though, that Carlos is terrible at subterfuge? He's never going to have an armored bear solemnly dub him Carlos Silvertongue. More like Carlos Tongue-Tied. "I...yes," he says uncertainly. "It's getting long, and...well, right now, it's a mess."

Cecil gives him a thumbs-up. Still using his radio voice, he continues: "Well, you should not. Perfect Carlos, with your perfect hair! It would be a loss to our entire community to shear off those beautiful locks."

It's totally something he would say. Back out in the scrublands, when Carlos was as utterly helpless as he's ever been, the closest Cecil came to taking advantage was to card through the ends of Carlos' tangled and slightly singed hair.

Less predictable is the fact that he follows it up by mouthing, Do it.

"It's my hair," says Carlos distantly, not sure whether he's addressing the fake order or the real one. "I'll decide what to do with it."

"I pray you make the right decision," says Cecil solemnly. Just like that, the Voice lifts, and he's all brightness and bubbling again. "Do you feel up to chewing chicken nuggets, or should I just get you a milkshake? They just came out with a new flavor. It's made with real venom!"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Henriette and Ichiro, with their marmot and capuchin daemons respectively, are waiting on the front steps of the larger rental when Cecil pulls up. They're the two next most senior researchers; if anything had happened to him...well, Henriette would take over, because she's the only one capable of supervising the angel research, but Ichiro would be a competent second with everything else.

They get Carlos out of the car, and their daemons carry Isaña inside, where half the team is awake and waiting for them. Carlos can't honestly say he's fine, but he promises it's nothing he won't recover from. He'll be taking a sick day tomorrow, and the rest of them should keep on working as normal...except that they should absolutely not take any more photos without getting a permit first, understand?

Also, if one of them could make an appointment for him at Night Vale General to get his wrist set, please?

And finally...if somebody could find the most ostentatious-yet-platonic gift basket in the district, and have it delivered to Night Vale Community Radio with Cecil's name on it...that would be great.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

There's only one barber in town, at the corner of Southwest 5th Street and Old Musk Road. On a day when most of the team is taking full-town readings, Carlos catches the bus down there, accompanied by Jordan.

It's a busy time of day, which means the public transportation is divided: humans sitting on the left, all daemons over a certain size sitting on the right, where the seats have been folded up to make sure the mid-sized ones like Jordan's tufted deer have enough space. Isaña is just over the size limit. On the Trimountaine T, survivors of certain kinds of daemon-related trauma can get exceptions, but Carlos doesn't even want to think about the kind of paperwork that would require in Night Vale, so he sits alone on the human side and tries not to think about how his cast itches.

"It's way past time I got a cut too," says Jordan, tugging thoughtfully at the hair in question. "Thanks for the reminder."

Jordan's hair is brown and straightish and chopped in what probably used to be an arty way. Maybe it's still arty now that it's grown to shoulder-length; Carlos isn't good at telling these things. "No problem."

"You know what kind of style you want?"

Carlos shrugs. "Short. That's about it."

They get off at the Old Musk Road stop and head up the block, to a small strip-mall enclave. It's easy to spot their destination: red-and-white spinning pole outside, big sign over the awning that says "Telly's." Jordan is still making small talk about how hopefully they don't do anything awful with Jordan's hair as they walk in.

(Jordan has some kind of...thing going on with gender. Carlos doesn't really understand it, but he avoids using pronouns for the junior researcher and keeps any judgment or nosy questions to himself, which holds him at a level of non-offensiveness that works well enough for both of them.)

A bell overhead rings as they step inside...and rings again as Carlos turns on his heel and steps right back out again.

He doesn't stop until he's three doors down, where there's a helpful bench in front of the natural foods store, in the shade of the row of awnings. Carlos collapses heavily onto it and holds his chest, where his heart is pounding badly. Isaña stations herself between his ankles; Carlos presses them together, assuring them both of the contact.

"Carlos? Hey, Carlos, wait up!" Jordan's following after him, baffled. "What is it? Are you okay?"

"Needed some fresh air," says Carlos faintly.

He can't explain the truth. For one thing, he hasn't shared most of the details of his re-education with anyone on the team. For another, there are probably secret police officers crouching between the parked cars or hiding on top of the building to watch them right now, and he doesn't think it'll go over well if he starts talking about having found out one of their civilian identities.

Jordan looks him up and down, then glances at the store they're next to. "You want me to run in and grab you an iced tea or something?"

"Would you, please? That would be great."

While Jordan's inside, Carlos scoops up Isaña in his non-cast-wrapped hand. She knows they're scared, but her eyes aren't good enough to have seen why. "Carlos...?"

"Hell of a coincidence," says Carlos softly, "how many white antelope daemons there are in this town."

Isaña shivers against him.

Cecil must be crazy. Expecting Carlos to walk in there and act normal and polite with Telly the barber? To sit still for half an hour and not have a panic attack while his hair gets washed and sheared off by the same hands that, barely a week ago, were touching his Isaña?

On the other hand...Cecil has a possibly-real alethiometer. And he's been right so far. They got the funding for the new equipment; they got Brad back safe, no physical injuries and no evidence of mental tampering.

Hypothesis: Cecil knows what he's doing.

When Jordan gets back, Carlos is almost calm. "I'm a little worried about how Cecil will react to this," he pseudo-confesses, drinking his iced tea. "You know how into my hair he is."

"Oh, geez, you're right," says Jordan. "Poor guy's going to be heartbroken."

"I guess we're just going to have to be brave and face it. Right, Isaña?"

"Right," says his daemon. "Brave like Lyra and Pan."

"Oh, hey, I remember that one," remarks Jordan, as they venture back into Telly's, for good this time. "When the Frost Giants from the ice world had gotten a lock of Lyra's hair, and she had to figure out how to get it cut before they could finish their magic spell and activate the bomb...."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It's one of their off nights. Some of the team have gone bowling; a few are catching a movie; at least one is staying in.

Carlos, Adriana, and Emily are at a PTA meeting.

They're trying to foster connections with the community, and in practice the PTA (which meets at the Main Street Recreation Center Auditorium) is a community social gathering that gets attended by all kinds of people, whether or not they're parents and/or teachers. They brought a handheld Rutherford counter, just in case anyone asks to watch them do some experimental theology. They also brought lemon squares.

Carlos hears Cecil before seeing him, a deep voice rising in anger from the far end of the snack table. "Oh, sure, Steve, let's see what pitiful excuse for a delicious high-carb pastry-type item you brought this time...oh my, are those pecan?"

"Those two," sighs a dark-haired woman in a sweatshirt, whose oryx daemon is standing several paces away from the table to avoid blocking the line. It doesn't seem like she's talking to anyone in particular until she turns and offers Carlos a hand to shake. "Flora Sandero. And you'll be the experimental theologians, of course. Maybe you have some theories about my son! Do you ever do any experiments about lightning?"

"Uh," says Carlos. He's got the Rutherford counter in his good hand and Isaña in the crook of the arm with the cast; he doesn't have a hand free for shaking. "We are passionate about all kinds of experimental theology, but I'm sorry to say that anbaric current isn't exactly our discipline."

"What about sentient lightning?"

Adriana steps in to take over. "You're in luck! Sentience is exactly our discipline."

"Wonderful! Well, you see, a sentient lightning bolt struck my son a few weeks ago, and...."

Carlos misses the rest of the conversation, because this is when Cecil spots him. "Carlos!" he exclaims. "Oh, beautiful Carlos, your hair! Your tragically, tragically shortened hair! Who did this? Who dared?"

"Well, ah," says Carlos, as Cecil circles him to take in the full view. It's short, all right. Still thick, but on top there's not enough length left to run his fingers through, and at the back of the neck it's buzzed almost flat. "You have to know there's only the one barber in Night Vale."

Cecil's face twists into a snarl. "Telly," he says darkly. "That vile, loathsome wretch of a man."

Emily, who's been holding her jackrabbit daemon close and not saying much, jumps in for the first time. "He did his job," she protests, in her halting but passable Spanish. "Carlos paid for a haircut and Telly cut it."

"That is no excuse!" insists Cecil. "What kind of monster would accept any amount of money to so much as touch Carlos' wonderful, precious, exquisite..."

The pause stretches a beat too long.

"...hair?"

For a few seconds Carlos feels lightheaded.

Cecil knows.

"Oh, quit harassing the guy, Palmero," cuts in a new voice, jerking Carlos back into the present. "He's obviously just not that into you. I blame your terrible taste in hats."

"There is nothing wrong with my taste, Steve," snaps Cecil. (Today he's wearing a sun visor with a translucent red plastic brim. Along with a cream-colored pirate shirt. And skinny jeans in bright cyan.) "And who are you to even talk about this? Carlos wants to do experimental theology on my work, not yours."

"I know, you egomaniac, you can't get enough of mentioning it," says a man who can only be the infamous Steve Carlsberg, the man Cecil is constantly complaining about on-air. He has a receding blonde hairline, a sensible striped V-neck, and a daemon in the form of a large but very fluffy badger.

"To be fair, Steve, I have a very good reason for bringing it up," says Cecil. "And that is: that I want to rub it in your face."

Eventually they manage to get real introductions between Steve (whose daemon's name is Taeminlahn), Carlos, and Emily. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Ramirez," says Steve, endearing himself to Carlos immediately by getting Carlos' name right. "I can only hope you have better taste than your stalker here."

"Shteve jush' doeshn't want t'admit he'sh a huge jerk who can't make an aksheptable shcone to shave hish life," puts in Cecil, through a mouthful of the half-eaten pecan scone in his hand.

Steve elbows Cecil in the ribs. Cecil elbows Steve right back. Neither jab is all that hard.

Oh, hell, they're best friends, aren't they.

"By the way," adds Steve, "you probably don't want to encourage him, but just in case...Cecil's dying to sign your cast, and he's way too spineless to come right out and ask."

"Cecil, I would love for you to sign my cast," says Carlos, and means it. "But...with what?"

(His other team members used the label makers, the ones they've been using to mark different folders and samples. Several of their names are already peeling off.)

"Don't worry," says Cecil with a grin. "I have just the thing."

Turns out he's been carrying around a makeshift "non-pen" made of a plastic straw, stuffed with cotton, one end carved into a delicate nib. He dunks it in the fondue pot and signs his name in cheese.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Not half an hour later Carlos is crouched behind the overturned snack table, trying to measure the radioactive output of the incessantly shrieking portal, all while avoiding being attacked by vicious sheepdog-sized pterodactyls.

Most of the PTA members and/or non-PTA attendees have fled. Others are lying prone on the floor, along with most of the folding chairs, a bunch of paper plates that trail spilled food crumbs, and (thanks to one of the pterodactyls escaping through a window) lots of broken glass. A dozen caped and balaclava-wearing secret police officers are trying to corral the rest of the creatures back into their own world with as few further deaths as possible.

"This could be a bigger phenomenon than the hypothetical discovery of angels!" yells Adriana over the racket.

She's hiding behind the same table, and she's ecstatic. For all that portals to other worlds are her thesis topic, none of them were expecting to end up face-to-face with a live one.

"The nonexistent angels are willing to sit nicely and let themselves be photographed!" counters Gerald, who came straight over with the camera when Carlos called to ask for help (back when the portal was only shrieking, not spitting out angry pterodactyls). He's up on the stage, trying to get photos, his musk-ox daemon ready to headbutt any would-be animal attackers. "I don't think these critters are going to be placated with Trimountaine Legal box sets!"

Carlos' Rutherford counter is going wild. "I'm reading levels of radiation that should be deadly to everyone within fifty miles!" he yells, just in case anyone wants to know. Isaña, next to him, is completely rolled up into an armor-plated ball.

"That's what you got at Niton Canyon too!" points out Gerald. "And outside the radio station! For all the deadly radiation in this town, sure are a lot of people not dead!"

A pterodactyl lands on the snack table and screeches at Carlos. He clocks it across the beak with Steve Carlsberg's scone tray.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

All the beasts do, eventually, get corralled back through the portal.

Two secret police officers die in the effort. The Sheriff's secret police may be corrupt down to the bone, but for the first time (or maybe the second, depending on what happened during the day nobody can remember) Carlos recognizes that Night Vale has a genuine need for heavy-duty protection. If you wanted to throw the Sheriff's force out, you'd have to be ready with something to replace them.

A well-trained crew of emergency workers swarms in to deal with the aftermath. The wounded victims of pterodactyl attacks. The maddened figures of those unfortunate souls who thought it was a good idea to stick their heads through the portal and see what was on the other side. The bodies.

There are a lot of bodies. Lifeless human forms, their daemons vanished into nothing. One more reason Carlos still struggles to accept the way everyone in town is so relaxed around Cecil-without-Khoshekh: a daemonless human looks as much like an animated corpse as a living, thinking being.

Carlos tries to stay out of the way of the emergency workers, but he can't leave. Not yet.

First, he has to find Emily.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"The pteranodons mostly attacked women with glasses," reports Cecil on the radio, as broadcast into the waiting room of Night Vale General. "Authorities are still unsure why...."

"They were pterodactyls," mutters Carlos, rubbing Isaña's ears.

The team has all been on rotating shifts in the hospital, waiting for Emily to regain consciousness. She's not going to die, but it's not likely she'll be able to stay in town and keep working while she heals, either.

Cecil moves on to reporting about the City Council's vote to remove the lead-plated "DANGER. PLUTONIUM" door in Niton Canyon. He spends more time discussing Carlos' presence at the meeting (apparently, according to Josie, Carlos smelled like lavender chewing gum at the time) than he does on bothering to mention that plutonium is, in fact, extremely dangerous. At least, anywhere else in the world, it is.

"Hypothesis," says Carlos quietly. "Something about portals and radioactivity. I don't know. But Adriana should look into that."

"Mr. Perfecto?"

Carlos sits up straighter. He didn't see anyone come in. "Yes?"

"Down here, Mr. Perfecto."

On the tiled floor in front of his feet is...a tarantula. In light-blue, eight-limbed scrubs.

A lone daemon, Carlos thinks at first: a really, really unorthodox species for a witch's daemon. But no, he doesn't feel the instinctive reluctance to touch it that hums under every (normal) person's skin. And it isn't like he's never seen an ordinary talking animal before: from certain kinds of parrots and foxes, who not only imitate human speech but show some agility in using it, to the fully sapient armored bears. It's just. Tarantulas?

"Your patient is up, and would like to see you," says the tarantula-nurse. "Follow me, please."

Holding Isaña tight, Carlos follows.

Emily brightens when they come into her room. Her head's been shaved to make way for the surgery; her face and one arm have multiple stitched-up lacerations, including a tear all the way down her cheek that makes it hard for her to talk. So she clears her throat, and her black-tailed jackrabbit — bandaged all down the torso and on an IV drip, but able to speak — says, on her behalf, "I think we're going to pursue the rest of our thesis somewhere else."

Carlos nods. "If you ever do want to come back, you'll have a place on the team as long as this project is running."

The dry looks on both their faces tell him that's not going to happen. "You at least got some useful data...right?"

"We'll make it count," Carlos assures them, sitting next to the beds. "We called your husband. His flight gets in this evening."

"Oh, good," sighs the jackrabbit daemon. "Wait...you told him about the aerodock security measures here...right?"

"I tried. I think he thought I was kidding," says Carlos ruefully. "He did at least agree to stay at one of the rentals, after I told him about the new 65% hotel tax."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It's a subdued team of nine that gathers in the ordinater room of the chapel. Carlos standing up front, the rest sitting.

He's always been a better researcher than a presenter, but there's a speech he's been working on for a while now, and he's surprised at how steadily he manages to deliver it. If any of them want to quit the project — pre-emptively, that is, without waiting until they get seriously injured, or re-educated too thoroughly to function — he's giving them an open offer. Their travel costs will be picked up by grant money. If they want an excuse to give to Harvard, a believable story to tell their families, or any other lie to back them up, Carlos will personally vouch for them.

After a heavy silence, Ichiro stands up. "I really appreciate your timing, Carlos," he says, "because I resign."

Carlos does a double-take. Ichiro was Emily's adviser, yes, but he was doing his own research here, too. "Are you sure?"

"Here's what I'm sure of," says Ichiro sharply. "This whole project should be called off. It's costing too much and finding too little. I'm only resigning in protest because I can't force you to kill it."

"Too little?" echoes Carlos, more dumbfounded than insulted. Ichiro might not buy the alethiometer, and might not be able to know about the angels, but: "A portal to another world is too little?"

"A portal with a death toll of thirty-eight is not something we're equipped to study! And don't bring up the alethiometer. If Palmero really had one, he wouldn't have reported the initial death toll as zero, now would he?"

"He was reporting the official number released by city authorities," says Carlos. Surely he doesn't have to point out that Cecil might get in trouble if he isn't careful?

"The simplest explanation for everything he's done is that he's in bed with city authorities." Ichiro's capuchin daemon paces restlessly on the desktop beside him. "He's only ever had inside information about the secret police —"

"Who are here for our protection," says Brad, with a nervous glance at the windows. Even though the ordinater room is on the second floor.

"— and who says he doesn't have a deal that they feed him any details you'd be interested in? If you think about it, everything they've done is awfully convenient for him. They take me, but don't hurt me, just give you a scare that Palmero can talk you down from...they take you, and they go rough on you, but not so bad you won't recover, just enough that you need Palmero to sweep in with exactly the right first aid material...."

"That's enough!" snaps Carlos. "You're talking about a ridiculously complicated scheme to run just to get my attention."

"And whatever Palmero's done to Telly is a ridiculously brutal overreaction just for cutting your hair. It fits the pattern!"

"What are you talking about?"

Ichiro lays out the details. At some point while Carlos didn't have the radio on, Cecil called out Telly, complete with an address and a physical description. As of this morning, Telly's barber shop has been dark and shuttered for several days, and the latest reviews on Yelp! all have a similar tone: Didn't get to my scheduled appointment. Establishment was closed without notice. Just what I would expect from such a vile, treacherous man....

Carlos folds his arms and tries not to break eye contact, though he badly wants to confer with Isaña. He's unsettled, and it probably shows.

"I heard that call-out too," says Henriette, getting to her feet as well. "And I agree it's not great timing, but Ichiro, think about this. It's completely possible that this Telly accidentally walked into another portal on his way home. Or got killed by the pterodactyl that was roaming around town for a while. Do you have any reason to pin it on Cecil Palmero that isn't circumstantial?"

"No," says Ichiro briskly. "And we're not staying around to find out." He holds out his arm for his daemon; the capuchin scampers up to ride on his shoulder. "It's been a pleasure working with all of you, and I sincerely hope none of you are killed by Palmero to get Carlos' attention. I'll leave my keys on the kitchen table."

On that pleasant note, they nod to the room and stride out.

Carlos pulls off his glasses and massages between his eyes. "Does anyone else think Cecil is at the head of a vast murder-kidnapping conspiracy?"

Jordan holds up both hands in defense, tufted-deer daemon nodding in agreement. "We're withholding any judgment until after we get to do some alethiometer study." There are nods of agreement from most of the others.

"Are we really the only ones who are going to say we think the whole idea is stupid?" demands Adriana. Her iguana daemon manages to look peeved.

"No," says Dotan. He's been spending most of his free time with Josie and the angels, and seems to be going through some kind of spiritual awakening. "Unlike Ichiro, we believe in miracles."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The problem, of course, is that Carlos and Isaña do have evidence that isn't circumstantial.

"But we don't think he really," says Carlos in the bath, where his hair is now much easier to wash, even one-handed.

"No," says Isaña from her blue plastic tub. She could have joined Carlos in the human-sized one — armadillos can swallow enough air that they float, or hold their breaths well enough to stay under for five or six minutes — but it's easier to just splash around in the small one, where she can roll over on her sides to work the desert grit off of her plates. "No, we don't."

"If it didn't go how he planned, though," adds Carlos later, in bed, where their framed Lyra Belacqua quote is now hanging over the headboard. "If everything else was him, but the last officer crossed a line, and that's why...."

Isaña cuddles down on her side of the pillow. "No. No, no, no."

Carlos realizes he's going to drive himself crazy if he keeps thinking about this, adding more layers of conspiracy theory whenever necessary, when all he knows for sure is that Cecil got mad at someone who deserved it. So he tries to stop.

It's not easy. Thinking, after all, is part of being an experimental theologian.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The day Carlos gets his cast off, he comes back to the chapel to find that their new equipment has shipped.

He calls Cecil. "Can we make an appointment to come by the studio this week?"

"Oh, Carlos, I would be delighted!" gushes Cecil. "How long do you need to stay around for? A few hours? All day? Maybe...through dinner?"

"I'm not asking for personal reasons!" exclaims Carlos, face hot. Is he going to have to start specifying that up front every time he talks to Cecil? "Our new equipment arrived this afternoon. We're ready to run those tests on your...radio equipment...that I was talking to you about."

They make an appointment (not including dinner, much to Cecil's dismay) for the team to come over on Thursday. And then, well, Carlos does have something personal to bring up after all.

"I just want to thank you again for picking me up when you did," he says carefully, mindful that the phones are tapped. "You were very...prepared."

"Think nothing of it," coos Cecil. "I was a Boy Scout, you know."

"No, I mean, very prepared," presses Carlos. "You were very, ah, specifically responsive to the things I had...been through."

Cecil makes a pensive noise. "Carlos, are you suggesting I used the alethiometer to look up what specific procedures the secret police used on you, in order to be even more prepared than usual? Because of course I would never do such a thing. Spying on classified municipal operations like that is a felony."

"Of course," says Carlos. "Perish the thought."

He still doesn't feel great that a relative stranger is the first and only person (outside of the perpetrators) to know how he and Isaña were violated. But if Cecil found out by accident in the process of saving their lives, can he really complain? And the story hasn't gone any farther than Cecil, which helps. One slip-up from the most-listened-to Voice in Night Vale could have the news all over town, but he's been discreet to a fault.

"On an unrelated note...I am not one to stand aside harshly and say that a man deserves the punishment that comes to him," adds Cecil. "But I cannot say I'm sorry to see your barber in the state he's in. Given his crime."

...And then there's that.

If reports are to be believed, Telly is now a madman wandering the sand wastes. He is blistered and incoherent. Sometimes he tries to give buzz cuts to cacti. His daemon is ragged of fur and no longer speaks, but spends her nights wailing at the moon.

Carlos wonders how the hell Cecil managed it. He wonders if he even wants to know. He wonders, not for the first time, if Ichiro was right, and it would be better to call the whole project off and have the team leave this town as fast as they can: on foot, if necessary. "I...don't know what to say."

"You could start with 'Cecil, I promise to let my gorgeous locks grow out from now on'," suggests Cecil cheerfully. "Perhaps followed by 'I look forward to seeing you next week'."

Chapter Text

The days leading up to the alethiometer study are surprisingly crisis-low.

One afternoon a mountain appears out in the desert, with a blinking red light visible on top of it, and a vast muddy plain strewn with bones spread out underneath. Several of the experimental theologians get in the minivan and drive out to investigate. They call back to report that the whole thing is a mirage, and just in time, because Carlos had been about to call the radio station and warn them about what turns out to be an illusory masked army advancing on the station. An hour or so later, the whole thing disappears.

There's a day where the town is hit by roving power outages. As far as Carlos can tell, they're just normal failures, probably caused by too many people running their air conditioners on a hot day. He orders a backup generator for the chapel so it won't slow them down too much if it happens again.

The local drawbridge collapses. Since there are no rivers or other bodies of water anywhere in the region, it makes absolutely no difference to anybody's travel plans.

Steve Carlsberg and his daemon complain about the City Council and get taken away for re-education, which Cecil reports on the radio with smug satisfaction. He's very convincing, even though Carlos, after seeing them together in person, knows better than to take the on-air antagonism of Steve at face value. Is he just protecting himself from being compromised by his friend's treason, or are they running a more complicated scheme here?

Carlos wonders, but he doesn't try to find out. He isn't here to challenge the local government, after all. He's only here to do research.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

No matter what suspicions they may have about Cecil, five of the remaining experimental theologians are so intrigued by the prospect of a real alethiometer that they insist on accompanying Carlos to the station. They all do the required finger-stick to sign in: Henriette, now his default second-in-command; Fleur and Brad, the photographers; Adriana, the would-be investigator of portals; and Dotan, the blossoming angel enthusiast.

Carlos warned them on the way over that Cecil regularly walks around without his daemon, but that he definitely has one, and they shouldn't worry about it. A few of them still do visible double-takes when Cecil meets them at the elevator, alone, and ushers them into his office.

It's a pleasantly normal room. The desk, a few chairs, and some shelves are made of dark wood with Queen Anne style carvings: elegant, not eccentric. All the accessories except for the bloodstone circle in the corner are items you could find in any office: a laptop, a stapler, a coffee mug (caption: Danger, I'm Radio-Active). On the wall Carlos spots a framed Certificate of Broadcasting Excellence, and a handful of photograms, including what looks like a younger Cecil standing alone in a landscape full of stark metallic arches.

"I'm so sorry to hear about your loss," says the present-day Cecil, after inviting them to set up their equipment however they like. "It's always sad when a team member has to depart. Our own Intern Leland left us just this week."

"It wasn't pterodactyls for him too, was it?" asks Adriana.

Cecil shakes his head. "Leland was vaporized. By something I have no memory of, or at least no memories I will acknowledge or speak about, for the sake of everyone in town."

The others converse quietly in English as they set up the equipment. Brad has the camera, its traditional film ready to be developed with the Asriel emulsion. Fleur has a video camera, with which they're going to try to duplicate the effect. Henriette and Adriana are in charge of the brand-new, horribly-expensive high-sensitivity Rusakov meter, while Dotan is running one of the original three, mostly just to find out at what point its accuracy goes down the drain.

As for Carlos, he has the checklist with everything they want to accomplish today on his tablet. He's also on Cecil-wrangling duty. And he brought a spare Rutherford counter, just for the hell of it.

Fleur gestures for Carlos' attention, her grackle daemon perched on a filing cabinet behind her and peering around the room with sharp avian eyes. When Carlos comes close, she says under her breath, in English, "I know you said he has a normal daemon, but are you absolutely sure...?"

"Are you asking about Khoshekh?" says Cecil.

In perfect English.

Poor Fleur blushes about the deepest black Carlos has ever seen on human skin. "I wasn't — I didn't mean any —"

"Last I knew, he was in the men's bathroom down the hall," says Cecil. He doesn't even have an accent. "I can take you to visit him, if you like."

"That's okay!" stammers Fleur. "I wouldn't want to...interrupt!"

"Well, he isn't using the facilities." Normally that would go unspoken, but in this case Carlos is glad to have it spelled out that Cecil's daemon has the standard lack of bodily functions. "He just happens to like it in the men's room. By the sink. I'm sure he wouldn't mind visitors."

"N-no, really...we should just get on with the experiments."

"Of course, of course," says Cecil. "Carlos, Isaña, does it matter which language we use?"

Carlos is still trying to wrap his brain around the switch. The thing about being bilingual, at least for most people, is that you don't walk around with both tongues fully loaded up in your head. At family gatherings, he runs on maybe sixty percent of each, switching mid-sentence if necessary. At Harvard, he'd be processing with English alone. And everyone in Night Vale except Josie is firmly in his mental Spanish-Only box, to the point where, here with Cecil, he's having trouble composing an English response. "Ah...for language...."

"English would be wonderful, Cecil," says Henriette. "Right, Carlos?"

"Right," says Carlos haltingly. "English. If Cecil's okay with it."

"Generous Carlos," sighs Cecil. It's weird to hear him gushing like that in English. Carlos blushes in turn; at least a few of his team are hiding smirks. "It's sweet of you to be concerned, but I will be perfectly comfortable." His voice deepens. "Perfectly."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They get a set of control photos and readings: just Cecil in his office desk chair, not doing anything in particular. Brad explains the concept of getting a baseline before they start running tests, for comparison purposes. In his native language and on his favorite topic, he's downright confident.

Cecil hangs on to every word. He doesn't just glance in your direction to talk to you, he swivels his whole head and gazes with rapt attention.

Maybe he really is into experimental theology for its own sake.

A thought strikes Carlos: What if, instead of Cecil being interested in experimental theology because of Carlos, it's the other way around? His adoration of Carlos' hair gave him a useful smokescreen to go after Carlos' assaulter. Maybe, if the team ends up doing research into something that isn't city-approved, this will be Cecil's defense: No, officer, of course I wasn't helping them in defiance of the City Council, I was only hanging around to admire perfect Carlos' strong jaw....

Well, now Carlos has to make extra-sure he stays alive and in the area. Wouldn't want to leave Cecil without a good excuse to help the rest of the team out.

It isn't long before they can't possibly take any more useful readings. "All right," says Carlos. "We're ready to see you...use the alethiometer, now."

"Of course!" says Cecil, and pulls it out of a desk drawer.

There's a moment when everyone, human and daemon alike, stops what they're doing to get a closer look.

It's a beautiful device. Not just mechanically or mathematically beautiful, but aesthetically, too. Its golden face is the size of a mid-sized clock, with three shining dials evenly spaced around the rim. The three large hands are black metal, filed to fine, precise points; the small hand is a delicate needle with the balance of a master craftsman's sword. Each points to one of the thirty-six symbols in a circle around them: delicate black ink drawings on an ivory surface.

Carlos used to have a poster of those symbols on his wall. Looking at these, he realizes the ones in his memory are direct copies of the originals. They're so minutely detailed, they still look good blown up to three or four times their original size.

"Did any of you want to try it?" asks Cecil obligingly, looking from face to face of the crowd around his desk. "It's not hard. Well, sometimes the dial next to the Sword sticks, and you have to whack it against the wall a couple of times to get it moving again, but other than that it's pretty easy."

Absolutely none of them want to casually handle one of the (most likely) only three alethiometers in existence. Dotan looks a little green at the thought of whacking it against anything.

"Let's just stay with the original plan," says Carlos. "Places, everyone."

The experimental theologians retreat to their equipment. Their daemons — armadillo, grackle, iguana, marmot, viper, even Brad's normally-nervous hamster — stay up at the desk, eager to have a front-row view of the action.

"Cecil, we'd like to see what happens when you look up something normal," Carlos begins. "Ideally something you were already planning to ask about for an upcoming broadcast. And would you mind describing the process as you go through it? What question you're thinking of, why you choose certain symbols, that sort of thing."

"Gladly," says Cecil. "We're going to do a special show soon in honor of Night Vale History Week, so I've been planning to look up some exciting historical facts to share with our listeners. Let me pull up a file."

He wakes up his laptop. To Carlos' surprise, the desktop wallpaper is plain black. (He'd been expecting an image in the "confused kittens wearing adorable hats" family.) And Cecil navigates entirely by keystrokes: W + Enter to highlight and select the Word program, which opens full-screen; control-O + h-i-s-t + Enter to open historyweek2012.doc. Another couple of keys, and an eerie automated voice reads out the first bullet point: 1. Something to do with the first people to live in Night Vale.

Cecil is already back to studying the alethiometer's face now, and taps a key to make the reading stop. Maybe the LCD display is hard on his eyes? "One of the topmost meanings of the Baby is the future, but a few levels down is beginnings," he narrates, picking a dial and twisting. "So we'll use it for that...."

He turns the dial until one of the large hands is pointed at the Baby. The way he has the device turned, the symbol is close to upside-down, but he doesn't rotate it; he seems able to track all the symbols no matter what angle they're at. He has slender, elegant fingers with very nice nails.

That last bit is not relevant to the experiment. Carlos is glad he isn't recording his observations out loud.

"People is easy," continues Cecil. "We'll use the Bird, which has the soul right up at the top of the levels of meaning. It gets interpreted as the daemon too, but it's broader than that — it covers sentient species whose souls don't have physical form, too."

"Like the panserbjørne," says Adriana.

"What? No, of course not. Why would armored bears come to live in the middle of a desert? I was thinking mostly of our troubled but tightly-knit local tarantula community. Now, to specify Night Vale...the Caiman is this continent, but it's hard to get more specific locations under that...the Cornucopia has home, as in my own...no, of course! Cecil, you dunce. The Anchor. For the meaning right here."

He twists the last dial.

The daemons on (or, in the case of Henriette's marmot, next to) Cecil's desk lean subtly closer.

Brad keeps snapping regular photos. Fleur holds the video camera steady on the device's face. The team members with their eyes on the Rusakov meters catch their breaths as the numbers shoot upward.

And the alethiometer's fourth hand, the slender obsidian-dark needle not attached to any dial, starts to spin.

Carlos will be able to study the movement in detail on the video later, slowing the playback to a crawl. He'll see the needle twitch against a symbol when it lands, the number of tics suggesting how far down you're supposed to go through the levels of possible meanings (but there are over a thousand levels per symbol and the fourth hand never twitches for that long, so it must be doing something more complicated than counting off). He'll wrestle with it, wonder over it, and debate with Isaña over whether to send the video to Heidelberg or Oxford to get the experts' interpretation.

(Would there be any point? Could anyone, however familiar with the Books of Reading, understand how to interpret these results if they'd never been to Night Vale?)

For now, though, he's studying Cecil's face while interpreting. Cecil's full attention is on the dial, brow furrowed; he doesn't move; he almost doesn't blink. The light from the alethiometer's glass-and-gold face reflects across his pale, clouded eyes, making them look pure white from corner to corner. His lips are slightly parted.

This, again, is probably not experimentally relevant. But maybe it is! You never know.

"The archaeologists were right," says Cecil slowly, smiling at the alethiometer's face. "The first people to settle here lived approximately six thousand years ago. Looks like they were...on their way to transitioning out of a hunter-gatherer stage...had developed ovens and a whole series of delicious yucca-based recipes...ooh, they made some of the region's most sophisticated ropes entirely out of human hair!"

Nobody in the room quite knows what to do with that. Archaeology was Emily and Ichiro's field. Carlos has no idea whether this was a normal practice across the continent in that area.

Cecil sets down the alethiometer, letting it just sit there, and starts typing. "I think I'll focus on the dark, inhuman shapes that always watched them from the distance. Shapes who never came closer or farther away, but whose presence could be felt even at night," he narrates as he gets it all down.

Carlos inches closer. Cecil appears to be recording his newfound trivia for the radio in Spanish, while explaining it out loud in English. He's a touch-typist, too.

"You know they didn't wear anything we would recognize as clothing, except on special occasions? But on those long, cold, terrifying nights, they did have rabbit-fur blankets to huddle in. There's a lovely handicrafts store across from the Arby's that still sells them in the traditional style — ears and all. Now, this getting off on a tangent, but I would love to look up some of those yucca-based recipes...unless there's something else you'd rather ask me about next?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They each take a turn asking a control question, testing the alethiometer's accuracy against things they already know, but that Cecil definitely shouldn't.

Cecil correctly identifies Brad's childhood family pet (an excitable spaniel named Dusty), and Fleur's original undergrad major before she switched to Rusakov science (theater). He isn't tricked when Adriana asks for the profession of her brother-in-law (the catch is, there are two of them: a concert pianist and an anbaric engineer).

Henriette asks what her son is getting his degree in, and gets a shock when Cecil says "Oh, another trick question!" She'd been looking for something along the lines of "Nipponese culture studies." Flustered, Cecil says he didn't mean to get in the middle of anything, and he won't be answering any more personal questions about family members, if it's all the same to them.

Dotan just wants to ask about angels. Cecil politely refuses, saying that Erika and Erika and wouldn't like to be spied on, and probably neither would Erika. That is, assuming they even existed, which they don't.

"And, Carlos...?" he asks, batting his eyes in Carlos' direction with a winsome smile. "I do get to look up something about you, don't I?"

"We have more than enough preliminary data to work with," says Carlos, trying not to fidget too visibly. He's not a secretive person by nature, and his life hasn't been all that interesting, aside from the research he's done. All the questions he can think of either have obvious answers, or are kept under wraps because they're genuinely embarrassing.

Cecil's face crumples into a needy, adorable pout. (It's so clear, in that moment, that his daemon is feline.) "Just one tiny thing? If you're not sure what to ask, I have some suggestions!"

Nobody on the team is tactless enough to challenge Carlos' authority out loud right now, especially not on behalf of his still-potentially-a-stalker. But he sure is getting a lot of looks of really, you're going to shut him down when he's been so helpful...and looks that adorable?

Besides, it's not like Cecil can't just look up whatever he wants about Carlos later, if he feels like it.

"All right," sighs Carlos. "What do you want to know?"

Cecil perks right up. "Oh, gosh, where to start? There are soooo many things I want to know about you. Let's see, ah...oh! Can I ask: when you were little, what did you want Isaña to settle as?"

This, Carlos thought, was one of the obvious ones. He studies Rusakov particles, for crying out loud. Half the people in his field are fellow lifelong Lyra Belacqua fans who spent their childhoods hoping their daemons would settle as pine martens.

"Sure," he says. "Go ahead."

Suppressing a joyful little squeak, Cecil turns back to the alethiometer. "The Compass, the Baby, and the Apple," he says immediately. "I shouldn't even have to explain that one!"

Henriette raises her eyebrows. "Would you mind doing it anyway? You know, just for the record."

Either Cecil ignores the sarcasm, or it goes right over his head. "The Compass for Carlos, because he's an experimental theologian," he says cheerfully. "The Baby for childhood, specifically childhood dreams, and the Apple for your daemon settling."

Carlos had guessed the first two. It's the Apple he couldn't figure out. Must be one of the more obscure meanings.

"How does it know you mean Carlos for the Compass?" puts in Adriana. "Why not any of the rest of us? Or just experimental theologians in general?"

"It doesn't know who I mean. I know who I mean. It's working off the meanings you hold in your mind, not just the symbols you point to." Cecil frowns at her. "I thought this was your field."

Adriana bristles; her iguana daemon's spines frill slightly. "It's a big field. My subdiscipline happens to be portals."

"Oh! Well, you're in luck; we get quite a few of those around here," says Cecil. "Now, granted, this search would be easier if there were a symbol with the primary meaning of perfection...but we make do with what we must."

"It has a symbol for angels," says Dotan under his breath.

"Don't let Erika hear you say that! Or Erika, either. They can be self-important enough with Old Woman Josie as it is."

It's Dotan's turn to get quietly affronted. On the desk, his palm viper daemon coils in disapproval. Isaña scoots over to her and rests a warning/soothing claw against what would, in a quadruped, be her shoulder.

Cecil, ignoring them, sets the dials. Everyone gets quiet so he can focus.

The needle spins.

Slowly, Cecil's eyes widen. "Oh my god," he breathes. "Oh my god, that is so cute. That is the cutest thing."

Pine martens are pretty adorable, yes. But Carlos isn't going to be let into confirming or denying anything before Cecil gets specific. "Go on."

Cecil sets down the alethiometer and clasps his hands. "You wanted her to be a panserbjørne!"

Wait, what?

Carlos and Isaña are getting some raised eyebrows from the rest of the team, humans and daemons both. "I did not," he says testily. Even little kids understand that daemons don't take the shape of beings who have souls of their own. (Imagine the chaos if they could go around in human form!) "Either it's wrong, or Cecil's reading it wrong. We had a couple of top choices, but they were all physically possible."

"Actually...." says Isaña.

Carlos pauses, though he can't imagine what his daemon has to add.

Isaña sits up on her hind legs on the desktop. "We only told people our top choices were all the possible ones. Don't you remember? I'd forgotten until just now, but once Cecil mentioned it...."

She must be remembering wrong. One of them has to be, after all, and it isn't Carlos.

Sure, his mother's favorite childhood photo of them involves Isaña in polar-bear shape, wearing "armor" made from a cardboard box (while Carlos rides on her back and cradles his much-loved Fisher-Price toy alethiometer), but that doesn't mean he specifically wanted....

It doesn't mean....

Oh, hell, it totally does. Little Carlos wanted an armored-bear daemon. And he never told anyone, or even dwelled on it much in private with Isaña, until eventually he forgot about the whole thing himself.

"Forget everything I just said," sighs adult Carlos, in a clipped voice to cover his embarrassment. "Cecil's right."

"Well, I think it's cute," says Fleur from behind the video camera. "I mean, is there anyone here who didn't want their daemon to settle as a pine marten at some point? Either as a kid, or later, retroactively, after you got into the field?" (Head-shakes all around the room.) "We're all admirers of Dr. Belacqua. At least Carlos was original about it."

Carlos hopes none of them notice that he's blushing. "For the record, I did recognize that it wasn't going to happen."

"But it sort of did!" says Cecil brightly. "That's why it's so adorable! Instead of having an armadazo, you got an armadillo!"

He uses the original pronunciation, making a connection that never clicked in Carlos' head until now. The Spanish translation of Isaña's species is quirquincho or tatú. The word armadillo is also found in Spanish, but translated back, it's little armored one.

Adriana gets the pun, cracks up, then explains it to the others. Carlos finds himself gazing in adoring wonder at his daemon, while she beams back — they've always been happy with her form, sure, but this is a whole new level — and, for the moment, he isn't bothered at all that Cecil is doing the same.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

One last question for the alethiometer:

"What is the single most effective thing we could do to advance our research on Rusakov particles?"

Cecil sets the dials to the Apple (which also has "Rusakov particles" in its list of meanings), the Crucible (for something he calls "achieved wisdom"), and the Thunderbolt (for "it's kind of like, I guess you'd call it, a single stroke of fate?"). The needle spins. The instruments measuring the local Rusakov concentration spike once more.

And Cecil frowns, dark eyebrows furrowing.

"It isn't giving me a whole lot of detail," he says at last. "Maybe this is something you already know about? It just says you have to make an electrum spyglass."

After everything else that's happened, it's a bit of a letdown. "Where are we even going to get enough electrum to experiment with?" asks Henriette. "We'll never convince Harvard to send us jewelry."

"No, that's the easy part!" says Cecil. "Jorge's Tacos was encased in electrum last summer. And considering that Jorge was inside it at the time, he's hardly going to complain if you chip off a few pieces."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

But even if that last question wasn't as helpful as they'd been hoping...they've found a real alethiometer.

Brad spends a few minutes laughing hysterically in the parking lot, and on the drive back to the chapel Henriette has to pull over and let someone else take the wheel, because she's starting to cry. For all of them except Dotan, it's as overwhelming and wondrous as the discovery of angels. Maybe more.

Carlos takes a moment to insist that they not share this outside the team. Not with Harvard, not with friends in the academic community, not with their families. They don't need telling twice. If the news gets back to the wrong people...even in the best-case scenario, where the alethiometer gets seized by a well-meaning and protective force with absolutely no deadly struggle along the way, they'll be left to fill out endless applications for the chance to study it again.

The worst-case scenario...Carlos doesn't even want to think about it.

It's a minor miracle that the alethiometers at Heidelberg and Oxford ended up where they did. Academia can be misguided and territorial, but it's less likely than a lot of other fields to turn evil.

(Whatever else you can say about the Night Vale municipal authorities, they're showing amazing restraint on this point. Maintaining a full-time, ever-present secret police force has to be expensive and time-consuming; it would be so much easier to lay off most of their spies and abuse the alethiometer's power — international treaties be damned — to do the same job.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Cecil wasn't kidding about Jorge's Tacos. There's enough electrum here for them all to teach themselves amateur sculpting, and then some.

A group of them hack off several large chunks, and load them in the back of the pickup to haul to the chapel for more detailed study. The radio is playing in the cab, where Cecil's History Week special is on. He's up to 1824 when Carlos, safety goggles covering his eyes and dust all over his chapel coat, picks up Isaña and brushes them both off to settle into the passenger seat.

"A number of elements of our modern civic process were invented in that single three-hour meeting, including the City Council membership (since unchanged), the lovably Byzantine tax system (as well as the system of brutal penalties for mistakes), and the official town song, chant, and moan," reports Cecil. "All records of this meeting were destroyed, and...according to a note being passed to me just now, I am to report to City Hall for re-education effective tomorrow morning. Oh, dear."

A cold chill runs down Carlos' spine.

"Drive to the station," he tells Gerald. "For completely incidental reasons, that have nothing to do with disapproval of City Council policies."

They're still not here to challenge the local government. But...but Cecil's been so helpful to them. Specifically, so cheerfully rebellious on behalf of the team (or at least, their work) that Carlos doesn't even want to think about what could happen if that information got tortured out of him. (Not that he would want to think about Cecil getting tortured no matter what.) They can't do nothing.

Cecil is talking about the Night Vale Public Library — specifically, the faceless spectre that's been picking off lone browsers in the Biography section — when Carlos' phone rings.

It's Cecil's number.

He picks up, and an unfamiliar voice, deep and slightly sinister, says, "Go home, científico."

"Who is this?" demands Carlos. Cecil hasn't been taken away yet — he still sounds fine on the radio. Unless it's pre-recorded? No, because if it wasn't a live broadcast they would have just censored the details he's going to be re-educated over —

A heavy sigh. "It's me, you perfect idiot. Don't get me wrong, we're thrilled that you care! Absolutely over the moon! But in the grand scheme of things, you have far more important things to be doing right now. For instance, I believe your carpets could use some vacuuming."

The voice is still unfamiliar, and yet also...not.

Given that Cecil is so comfortable speaking directly with Isaña, it was only a matter of time before the inverse happened too, right?

"Khoshekh?" asks Carlos.

On the other end of the line, Khoshekh purrs. "That's right. Clever scientist! Now, do another clever thing and go deal with those carpets. Cecil will be back on the air tomorrow, just like always."

He hangs up.

Carlos stares at the blank screen. He should take comfort from this, right? Cecil's going to be fine.

Unless Khoshekh's lying, and it's going to be awful for Cecil, but he wants to spare Carlos and his colleagues whatever trouble they would get into by trying to help.

Or unless this whole re-education is staged, to make it look more genuine when Cecil claims not to be a government prop, and he wants Carlos far away so Carlos is less likely to notice any evidence that it's faked....

"Carlos?" asks Gerald from the driver's seat, interrupting Carlos' train of thought before it can barrel too far down the track of conspiracy theories again. "Are we changing plans?"

Carlos sighs, pulls off his goggles, and puts down the phone. "Home. Let's go home."

Chapter Text

They finally finish prints of every image from the visit with Cecil. Stunning, fascinating, beautiful prints.

Carlos sends the control team the vaguest status report he's ever written, plus the friendly suggestion that they come down and visit Night Vale some time. He can't say much on any channel that might be intercepted, and there are some things he's keeping secret for now no matter what; but they deserve more truth than they're getting.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

True to his daemon's word, Cecil is on the air that evening as usual, with nothing in his voice to suggest that his morning re-education did him any harm. Carlos waits until the show is over, then steps out of the main room of the chapel (where everyone else is staying late, admiring the way the images came out).

"I'm not calling for personal reasons," he says up front, even though right now he would be worried if Cecil hadn't reacted to his voice by gasping and cooing his name in an awfully personal way. "We have some results from the experiments you helped with, and we'd like to talk to you about them."

"Uh-huh?" says Cecil expectantly.

"Well, actually, I was hoping we could talk about them face-to-face," says Carlos. He glances at Isaña, who gives him an encouraging nod. "Are you free tomorrow afternoon? Maybe we could get coffee?"

"Excuse me just one moment," squeaks Cecil.

There's a pause, during which he doesn't say anything into the receiver, but Carlos does catch a faint noise that sounds a lot like someone on the other side of a room shrieking in delight.

And then he's back, clearing his throat and speaking in a version of his on-air voice: deep, measured, mostly composed. "It would be an honor and a delight. Where would you like to go?"

"Um," says Carlos. "I didn't really have anywhere in mind. What works best for you?"

"Good question!" says Cecil. "Give me one more moment to check."

This time it really is quiet.

...Is he seriously harnessing the omniscient truthtelling power of the alethiometer to decide where to get coffee?

(What symbols would you even use for that? Probably the Compass to refer to Carlos. The Apple, in spite of its name, doesn't have a lot of physical-sustenance-related meanings; those tend to fall under Bread. Or maybe the Cornucopia? And for the third...Carlos has no idea. This is why he's not an alethiometrist.)

"There's a Starbucks right down the block from my apartment building," announces Cecil at last. "Well, there are two, but we'll be wanting the Weird Starbucks, not the Forsaken Starbucks. Is that all right with you?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

After Carlos has accepted the invitation, and taken down the address, he goes back into the main room of the chapel. On a side table, their large old-fashioned radio is still on, playing the program after Cecil's. Everyone's still hanging out around the table where they've laid out the photos, but when Carlos comes in, a bunch of them turn to give him Significant Looks.

"Cecil's happy to talk about the photos," reports Carlos. "He's meeting me and Isaña at a Starbucks tomorrow afternoon. I know Saturday is our off day this weekend, but I'm sure some of you will want to hear what he thinks of these, so...."

"No, no," says Henriette, her alpine marmot daemon hiding a snicker behind his furry paws. "You go ahead and go alone. Wouldn't want to disappoint Cecil."

Carlos folds his arms and switches languages. "Teasing in Spanish, remember? And I never told him the meeting would be alone."

"But we're pretty sure he's thinking it," replies Henriette in kind, nodding toward the radio.

"How would you...? His show's over," stammers Carlos. The sound currently being broadcast, as far as he can tell, is a combination of smooth jazz, the crackling of a fire in a hearth, and the sound of heavy rain outside a window. Very pleasant. Downright soothing. "He didn't come back on, did he?" (He wouldn't have broadcast the call, right?)

"He did not," confirms Gerald. "But what's supposed to be on...what had already started, only to change a minute ago...was two solid hours of...." He pauses, whispers something to Adriana, and reports the translation she gives him: "The machines inside an aluminum factory."

And Brad (whose hamster daemon is chittering with suppressed mirth), in a stilted, singsongy cadence that suggests he memorized the whole sentence just for this purpose, adds, "Maybe one of us should go along with Carlos in order to protect his virtue."

Carlos groans. "All of you should be ashamed of yourselves."

"Look on the bright side," says Isaña from by his feet. "I think it really is improving their grammar."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Saturday is hot and dry, but a blast of freezing air washes over Carlos and Isaña the moment they step into the Weird Starbucks, making Carlos glad he brought his chapel coat.

No sign of Cecil. The tables are pretty empty in general. Business at the counter is steady, but with a trio of mysterious hooded spectres sitting in one corner, it looks like most customers are opting to make their orders to-go.

Carlos orders a spiced latte and finds a seat facing the door. He tries not to look at the hooded spectres, or focus on the low hum of static they give off. Their general forms are humanoid, and it's possible they have smallish daemons riding on their shoulders, concealed in the void-dark shadows under their hoods...but Carlos has never for a second believed they could be human.

A minute or two later, Cecil swirls in. He's wearing a perfectly professional off-white button-down shirt...with neon purple suspenders, and a denim wraparound skirt decorated with yellow flower decals that stops just above his knees, which still makes it the most normal outfit Carlos has ever seen on him.

Also, there's a cut on his right cheek, and a light map of faded purplish bruising evident on the side of his face.

Carlos picks Isaña up from his lap and sets her on the table; Cecil greets them both with his usual cheery smile. As he sits down, Carlos murmurs (defaulting unthinkingly to Spanish), "Are you okay? You didn't have to come out here if...I mean, we can put this off...."

"Carlos — generous Carlos! — your concern is touching, but you should know that, along with just over half of our beloved community, I was not born with pain receptors."

That makes it worse! Having no sense of pain just makes you more likely to do yourself serious damage without realizing it. Infants born with the condition are usually identified by the way they've scratched themselves bloody, or clawed themselves into permanently impaired vision, in blissful ignorance that they're doing anything wrong.

Before Carlos or Isaña can voice their concerns, though, Cecil bends close and whispers, "If you have anything, say, angelic to tell me today, we should go sit by the hooded spectres." When Carlos winces, he adds: "Don't worry, they never feed on anyone this far from the dog park!"

As usual, Cecil isn't being nearly as reassuring as he seems to think he is. Carlos pulls the folder with the latest prints out of his messenger bag. "Don't worry, there's nothing in these about nonexistent angelic visitors, or anything along those lines. It's all you."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Even in the control photos, it's impossible to guess what Cecil's personal concentration of Rusakov particles really looks like in a "resting state." The station's background levels are already so high; all of them are glittering with more Dust than usual. His daemon is nowhere near, which skews his individual results. And Carlos still hasn't figured out how to interpret the anomalous bright spot in front of Cecil's forehead where entirely too much Dust has gathered.

He'd been planning to ask for another set of control photograms here at the Starbucks. The camera is in his bag and everything. But he has a strong feeling the hooded spectres — who live in the terrifying Rusakov dead zone that is the dog park — will skew the results too.

So for now, Carlos settles on walking Cecil through the photos they already have. He points out the bright spot. He talks about timestamps as they go through the progression of photos: this one was taken just as Cecil finished asking a question, this one was taken while the needle was spinning, this one was taken as he started composing the next one. He directs Cecil's eyes to the dense cloud of Dust that forms around Cecil's hands, at points becoming a solid blur of white light.

Even the most painstakingly-crafted fake alethiometer can't replicate that.

Cecil nods a lot, sips his macchiato, and says "Uh-huh" and "Neat!" at regular intervals. After a while Carlos realizes that maybe he's getting a little carried away...sure, it's his favorite topic, and he could talk about the finer details for hours...but most people start to get bored at some point, and he doesn't want to wear Cecil's politeness too thin...

...also, there's something strange about the way Cecil's eyes are tracking.

His head is bowed to face the photos. Carlos pauses to study him, really pay attention to him — and not just to the way he's wearing a light layer of makeup over the bruises, either. It's subtle, clouded-over as they are, but his pupils are definitely not moving where you would expect them to move.

So Carlos slides the photo aside to reveal the next one, and says, without pointing to anything specific in the image, "Now, in this one, for some reason, everything starts turning slightly purple...."

"Uh-huh," says Cecil, oblivious to the fact that Carlos just totally made that up.

Carlos flips through the next couple of normally-colored images. "The effect gets strongest in this one. We're not sure how to explain it. Although it could always be a problem with the camera filter."

"Gosh," says Cecil. "That could be it, I guess? I don't know, it's not my field."

Carlos sits back in his chair. "Cecil, are you listening to me at all?"

Cecil looks genuinely startled as he sits up. "What? Of course! I'm hanging on to every word. You're talking about how the pictures were turning purple...." He trails off, brow furrowing. "Oh. I guess they weren't."

He couldn't tell, even though he was paying attention? "Are you colorblind?" guesses Carlos.

"Um," says Cecil sheepishly.

"I didn't realize! You could have said something — I wasn't trying to make fun of you, I swear." From now on Carlos is going to be so much kinder about Cecil's fashion choices. "Is it total, or just red-green, or...?"

"Well, actually...."

Carlos makes himself stop hypothesizing, and waits.

"I would have told you! But you seemed so excited, and I didn't want to ruin your fun." With an abashed grin, Cecil taps the face of one of the photograms. "I can't see any of this. I mean, I see physical shapes, so obviously it's a flat piece of paper suitable for printing. But I don't get colors or shades. The front and the back look exactly the same — I'm only assuming this side is the front because it's the side you had facing up."

A dozen baffled responses run through Carlos' mind. It explains so much — from the way Cecil uses an ordinater to every single outfit Carlos has ever seen on him — but it opens ten times as many questions as it answers.

Isaña picks one and asks it: "You talked about our hair color on air. If you don't see shades, how did you know?"

"Ah, your beautiful dark locks, with the distinguished touch of premature grey!" sighs Cecil. "Old Woman Josie told me all about that. She's so good at helping me out with those kinds of details."

Carlos wonders whether he means details about color or details about you, then decides it's probably better not to ask. "That still doesn't explain...you can tell apart the symbols on the alethiometer...you can drive! How are you allowed to drive?"

With that, his incredulity starts to get under Cecil's skin. "Are you suggesting that I would put my entire beloved hometown in danger like that? That I would put my beloved you in danger like that? Honestly, Carlos."

It's a reality check (for a given value of reality) for Carlos. He's been drawing logical conclusions based on real-world rules, but he can't run on the assumption that those are Night Vale rules. "I'm sorry," he says, trying to rein himself in. "I shouldn't be interrogating you. I just...I want to understand. I don't want to do more things in the future that waste your time."

A thought strikes him, and he knows it's slightly manipulative, but he rests one hand on Isaña's shell and goes for it:

"Plus, if we're ever going to get in a car with you in the future, I think we have some right to know at least the basics."

It does the trick. "Of course, of course you do," says Cecil, calming down himself. "Well, you'll be happy to know that I am fully licensed to drive as long as I have Khoshekh with me. We're very good at entering, and staying in, four-eye." His voice does that ominous deepening thing it does. "Very good."

"Right. Should've known," says Carlos. Most people and daemons have a hard time sharing their sensory input at all, let alone maintaining the four-eye state (which, in spite of the name, covers more than just vision). But Cecil can read an alethiometer like a book and Khoshekh can easily wander miles away from him; why should they have any trouble staying in four-eye while driving?

"Also, I had normal vision when I was a child, so you won't confuse me if you talk about things like colors. I do know what something like 'purple' refers to. Or at least, I know what it refers to for me. Khoshekh's experience of 'purple' is very different from how mine used to be. Perhaps it has nothing in common with your experience of 'purple'. Perhaps each of us has our own unique palette for the world, unconnected to any other, and yet we will go through our entire lives as if we do not."

Trying to politely cut short Cecil's building soliloquy, Carlos says, "I'm sorry about your loss. Of your...personal palette, I mean."

"You know, I can't even remember how it happened," says Cecil with a casual shrug. "I was pretty young at the time, after all. Maybe...fifteen? Who remembers everything from that age, right?"

Carlos exchanges a worried look with Isaña. Whether Cecil means to or not, he's playing on their sympathies like a piano.

"Anyway, when we're not in four-eye, my vision is like...have you ever seen a step-by-step breakdown of 3-D animation? You know the step right after the wireframes, where all the objects are laid out in the scene, but maybe they're a little low-res and they're all the same neutral color?"

"So...it's like you see everything in a uniform shade of grey?"

"Exactly! Except it isn't uniform — some things are brighter or darker — although not in any sense of 'bright' or 'dark' that corresponds to those terms as Khoshekh sees them. And it isn't grey, either, because grey is still a color, and it isn't in color. At least, not in any color I have yet heard a word for. If and/or when the term is invented, I will be sure to let you know."

"I think I get it," says Carlos. And the wild thing is, he really does. Except....

"Sometimes I can make out things like handwritten words," continues Cecil, anticipating his next question. "Especially if they're large. That was a lot more useful before the City Council outlawed writing utensils...but then, it's much easier to make my ordinater play back audio for typed words than written ones, so it's all worked out in the long run!"

Makes sense. A pen on paper leaves a change in texture, not just a change in color. (Carlos has a brief flash of wondering if the ban on writing utensils could have been solely for the purpose of slowing Cecil down.) "So the symbols on the alethiometer are the same way? They stand out? Or...is it like typing, where, once your fingers are in the right place to start, you can just go from there without even needing to look?"

"It's a bit of both!" says Cecil brightly. "Gosh, Carlos, you are so smart."

It's weird: Carlos should be getting more accustomed to Cecil's compliments as time goes on, not more flustered by them. "I was just making inferences based on observation," he says. "It's part of being an experimental theologian."

"Gosh," says Cecil, yet again.

Everything they've been discussing means he has no way to tell when Carlos is blushing, right? "Listen, do you think we could try going over the photos again? Only this time, I'll actually describe what's happening, and if you're confused on any point or need me to explain in more detail, you'll let me know?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Cecil gets so much more helpful once Carlos starts actually conveying to him what's going on.

When Carlos starts describing the bright spot in the photos that lights up Cecil's whole forehead, for example, Cecil puts down his macchiato mid-sip and touches the exact place on his actual head: close to his hairline and slightly off-center. "Is it here, by any chance?"

"Yes! Exactly there. What made you guess?"

"That's where my trepanación was."

"Sorry, what?"

"Trepanación — trepanning," says Cecil, giving him the English word. "You must have heard of it. Sometimes it gets called things like 'opening your third eye'? I know it's common with the Tartars, with the Inuit, with a lot of other Skraeling tribes...not that I tried to rip off any kind of traditional ceremony! I'm not the Apache Tracker, here."

Carlos remembers the photos from their very first town meeting, remembers who else had a similar bright spot. "That's the white guy with the really stupid-looking feather headdress and the offensively cliché wolf daemon, right?"

"Ugh, that guy," groans Cecil. "I won't even tell you how he got his, it's too embarrassingly racist. If you're a peninsular, just get it done at a hospital, come on."

"Well, you're right, I've heard about it," says Carlos, looking between the topmost photo and the current state of Cecil's forehead. When Cecil's dark hair isn't in the way, Carlos can see a narrow scar on his skin where it was cut open, where there must still be a hole in the bone underneath. "Nothing good, though. It's one of those procedures that gets credited with everything — curing epilepsy and depression, giving people psychic powers or higher states of consciousness, you name it — but it's been studied, over and over, and nobody's found conclusive evidence for any of it."

"Does that mean you could be the first? How exciting!"

Carlos sighs, not unhappily. Nobody's ever demonstrated a link between trepanation and increased sensitivity to Rusakov particles either, and Cecil's situation, no matter how remarkable, is only one data point...but it's a data point Carlos is definitely following up on. "Can you tell me where you got the procedure done?"

"It was my first-ever trip out of the country." Cecil smiles at the memory. "I didn't want to run any risks, and of course all the best trepanation experts are in Brazil, so I was thrilled when I managed to get an appointment at the Hospital de Clinicas de Porto Alegre."

"Hang on, let me get this down." Carlos fishes out his tablet. "You said this was in Brazil? Where's that?"

"Antillia."

"Uh-huh. What country?"

"I just told you. Brazil."

Carlos looks up from his notes. He hasn't exactly memorized a full map of the continent to the south, but he likes to think he'd recognize the countries' names if he heard them. "I'm not familiar with it."

"Oh, you're missing out," says Cecil. "I had a wonderful time there, at least when I wasn't in surgery. Vibrant, storied Brazil! Land of rainforests and samba dancers, where the people speak Weird Spanish and all the animals float."

This is something Carlos feels much less compelled to follow up on. "I'll look into it," he says. "In the meantime...you wouldn't happen to know if the topic of trepanation is restricted, in any way? Or if there are permits we'd need to apply for before researching it?"

"Not off the top of my head," says Cecil. "But I would be happy to look it up for you."

"I'd appreciate it," says Carlos absently, wondering: does he mean with the alethiometer? Or does Cecil just own a set of reference books on local forbidden topics? It's not like this town wouldn't have a market for them.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The next time Carlos sees Cecil isn't at a work-related appointment. It's at a Night Vale High football game.

He almost decided to stay home today. When the team got up this morning, all the food and dishes in the kitchen of the larger rental house had been shifted one cabinet clockwise, and half of the books on their shelves had been turned upside-down. Even if it's nothing more ominous than a very precise poltergeist, the confusion is going to take some work to rearrange.

But building connections with the community is also important work, and high school football is a lightning rod for this town's community spirit. (No pun intended re: Michael Sandero, the quarterback who has survived multiple lightning strikes and now has two heads for his trouble.)

So Carlos ends up sitting in the stands, wearing a Night Vale Scorpions T-shirt he bought from a vendor outside and hastily pulled on over his chapel coat. They even had such a broad selection of daemon-styled neckerchiefs that he found one of the right size to put on Isaña.

He mostly takes his cues from the other NVH-violet-wearing attendees about when to clap.

It's such a busy day that the packed stands are strictly split up: first row daemons, then two human rows, then two daemon rows, and so on. A human trying to squeeze past the crowded seats can make sure to err on the side of leaning away from the adjacent daemon row, and vice versa. That's how Carlos spots Cecil: there's a conspicuously empty front-row seat, and sure enough, Cecil has the one behind it.

From a few rows back and several seats down, Carlos can mostly see Cecil in profile. He's wearing a Scorpions polo shirt, matching sweatpants, and what appears to be an oversize-daemon neckerchief used as a cape. It looks like the bruising has faded completely.

On the flip side, Cecil doesn't seem to even realize that Carlos is there.

When he isn't watching the game, he's yelling at Steve Carlsberg in the seat beside him (with his badger daemon sitting perfectly normally in the seat next to where Khoshekh would be). Steve, it seems, believes that the Scorpions' opponents are human beings with good sportsmanship engaged in an athletic competition, where everyone who plays their hardest has gotten something valuable out of it. Cecil has to keep correcting him that no, the visiting team are awful human beings, and the Scorpions should feel deep shame for anything less than crushing them like they deserve.

During a time-out, Carlos wonders if he should go down and say hi. After all, Cecil's always happy to see him, right? But even if he is, Steve might not be. And given that it hasn't been long since the bandages came off from Steve's own most recent re-education, Carlos really doesn't want to get between him and his friend uninvited.

A familiar voice interrupts his dithering: "Ramirez! Was hoping I'd find you here."

"Raimondi!" exclaims Carlos right back. "You didn't tell me you were coming!"

The head of the control team is wearing casual clothes, without even a chapel coat thrown on over them. His daemon, a spotted hyena, trots down the next row up from them and touches noses with Isaña while Raimondi clasps Carlos' hand. "Figured I'd surprise you."

Carlos isn't terribly close to his counterpart, but they've run in the same academic circles for several years. There's a professional respect between them, plus a shared frustration at the way people regularly mix up their names. At least once a funding cycle Carlos has to explain to someone that no, they're not looking for Carlos Ramirez, the man they want is Carlo Raimondi. And vice versa.

"Want to talk now, or are you gonna let me watch the rest of the game?" adds Raimondi.

It's not that Carlos has anything against the game. It's just that football is one of the few occasions for which the Sheriff's secret police will cut back their staffing to a minimum and monitor almost nothing at all. "Tell you what. Give me ten minutes, and then, if you like, you can get back in plenty of time to catch the end."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Half an hour later, they're still in the dugout of the currently-abandoned baseball field, with Raimondi entranced by the comparison photos of the angels.

In direct sunlight they're invisible; in the dark of the night they appear as silvery silhouettes. They're willing to change shape on request (Erika in particular seems to have fun with it), and can coalesce into small animals whose visibility is downright normal. You could take them for daemons, until you develop those photos with the Asriel emulsion and see the way they blaze.

(And how must they appear through Cecil's unorthodox vision?)

"This is incredible," says Raimondi, flipping back and forth between normal-light and Rusakov-particle views of a bird-shaped angel perched on Dotan's wrist. "No wonder you're getting all these spikes. We see some jumps and dips in our data, more than most standard models predict, but these are constant. And the places where the numbers crash — is there the same kind of correlation with these other mystery figures you've talked about? The, ah, the hooded spectres?"

"Possibly. We haven't gotten a chance to study them in any detail yet. They're...not exactly cooperative."

"And are there more angels...."

Carlos sucks in a sharp breath.

"I mean, eh, not that angels exist...."

Relaxing, Carlos nods for him to continue.

"...but if angels existed, would it be likely that they're also associated with the radio station?"

"We have appointments to take detailed photos of the station environment over the next few weeks," says Carlos. It's avoiding the question, but in fairness, there could be angels associated with NVCR. Even with the alethiometer taken into account, the station's Rusakov concentration is still higher than the ones routinely recorded around the Oxford and Heidelberg alethiometers.

"Good to hear it! So they're cooperating with the project, yes? Just tolerating you, or are they on board with the science?"

It's weird to hear the English word science again. Also weird to talk to someone who has no idea that Cecil exists, let alone has opinions about Carlos. "On board. The host of their flagship program has, ah, something of a crush. On me. So that helps."

"An admirer, eh?" asks Raimondi, as his hyena daemon wags her tail, doglike, and grins her species' characteristic grin. "And you cut your hair? That's your best feature! She still like you after that?"

Right. Doesn't know Cecil exists, doesn't take Cecil's gender for granted. "He's a he, and yes, so far."

The other man's face stays carefully neutral. "Ah. Well, here's hoping he keeps on being a help to your work."

"We also have some theories involving portals," says Carlos, because, dear lord, anything to change the subject. He feels awful about it, not standing up either for Cecil in particular or same-sex-attracted people in general, but he can't figure out how to defend Cecil without explaining Cecil, and doing that from scratch? It would take hours.

(He ignores the disapproving little huff from Isaña at his side.)

"Portals?" echoes Raimondi. "As in, doorways to other worlds? Don't tell me you've been finding those too."

Carlos feels like he should be apologizing for getting the town with all the cool stuff. In spite of the death toll. "Um, just the one so far."

His counterpart throws up his hands. "Oh, for the love of...."

"No, hold on. You said you were getting unusual extremes in your readings sometimes," says Carlos. "It could be related. Can you try to find a pattern in yours? We're seeing those too, it's just hard to pull out from the major anomalies. If we had some way of predicting them...it would be good for our research. And for town safety in general, if it correlates with the portals. The last one wasn't exactly benign."

"I'll make a note," says Raimondi, reaching into his pocket.

For a moment Carlos doesn't react. Sure, it's been months since he's seen a pen, but in his mind they're still more forgettably common than label makers and letter-shaped stamps.

Then Isaña gasps and gives him an urgent poke in the thigh, and Carlos grabs the ballpoint out of Raimondi's hand, flinging it across the baseball field. It lands in the dirt next to second base, a stick of white and blue against the dusty brown.

"What the hell, Ramirez?"

"Pens are contraband," says Carlos breathlessly, spreading one hand across Isaña's shell and holding her protectively against his leg. "Didn't you read the memo? There was definitely a memo."

"Yeah, I read it, but c'mon, it's one pen, for personal use, and I'm only gonna be in town a few hours...."

"And I've been here for months, so believe me when I say it's not worth running the risk. I'll email you a reminder, okay?"

Raimondi sighs. "Sure, you do that." He scratches idly behind his hyena daemon's ears; she leans into the touch. "I warn you now, though, don't expect too much in the results. We've seen no sign of angels, not that they exist, or portals, or impossible Rusakov readings, or anything at all except ordinary small-town folk with no vision whatsoever."

More groups that Carlos is failing to defend: citizens of small towns, and people with impaired vision. "What you're doing is important," he says instead, trying to be comforting. "Our results would be worth so much less if we didn't have your work in Desert Bluffs to compare it to."

"Yes, yes, I know that," says Raimondi. "My mind knows it, anyway. I'm not saying I won't get over it, I'm just saying, once in a while, you can't help but feel...unfulfilled."

Chapter Text

The team's first attempts at making an electrum spyglass go (almost) absolutely nowhere.

A local jeweler is able to produce a variety of plates and lenses with the stone, to exacting specifications of thickness and magnification. It's easy to swap these in for the original glass lens in a telescope Carlos picked up at the local hobby shop. But when looked through, all they show is the world as usual, slightly distorted and tinted yellow.

"Maybe Cecil didn't literally mean electrum," suggests Jordan, in a brainstorming session while the ordinaters compile their latest on-site data. "Maybe he just meant those yellow-orange lenses, you know, the kind some sunglasses have? They're called electrum lenses."

It's worth a shot, and a lot cheaper than some of the expenses Carlos is contemplating trying to justify, so they order a batch. Putting the lenses in a telescope doesn't make any notable change.

"Some of these are polarized and some aren't," observes Fleur, the veteran of photographic research. "What if we tried to produce a polarizing filter with the actual electrum? If we had a lot more of these flat planes, and we calculated Brewster's angle for the substance...."

They have more produced; they do the calculations; they try it. Lots of interesting distortions happen, both when they look through the plates directly and when they use the projector to aim an image through them. Interesting...but not, as far as they can tell, relevant.

"We could try running an anbaric current through the lens while viewing," says Gerald. It gets him a few raised eyebrows; he was an anbaric engineer for over a decade before going back to school for his degree in Rusakov studies, so they don't doubt it's his area, but does that make it relevant? "You think I'm kidding? Why, conductivity is one of electrum's defining characteristics! The word 'anbaric' itself comes from anbar — the Arabic word for electrum."

It doesn't make any difference. At least, not to the views through their spyglass tests. The static-laden electrum keeps getting bits of paper stuck to it, and it makes Carlos' still-pretty-short hair stand on end. He looks like a mad experimental theologian from a cartoon. Give him the stereotypical rat or raven daemon, and he'd be all set.

He would almost be tempted to give up altogether...except that the Rusakov ratings around the chapel took a statistically significant tick upwards when they started this line of research, and have remained elevated ever since.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Between the Sheriff's office and NVCR Station Management, the team has all the necessary permits to take photos at the radio station. Carlos isn't sure which group was more nerve-wracking to make requests from.

He makes sure everyone involved has photocopies of all the permits in their pockets. When they first get out the cameras, Isaña stays so close to his heels that he nearly trips over her twice.

This set is meant to be control photos, which in this case means Cecil, Khoshekh, and the alethiometer are all off the premises. The experimental theologians get a shot of every room they're allowed into (Station Management's office, for instance, is off-limits; nobody actually tells them this, but they get the idea pretty quick), exterior shots from all sides, and a bunch of dramatic images from the roof. Plus, matching Rusakov readings in every spot.

At last Carlos calls Cecil to let him know that they're done, that he can come back to work now, and that they hope they haven't inconvenienced him too badly.

While the others go on a pizza run, Carlos and Isaña, by unspoken agreement wait, for Cecil in the parking lot. They still haven't seen Cecil's daemon in broad daylight, but it's early afternoon now, and if he drives in to work, he'll have to have Khoshekh with him....

No such luck. After about five minutes there's a commotion in the sky, the thudding of gyropter blades — nothing to do with Cecil, this one's a handful of blue secret-police choppers in hot pursuit of something that looks remarkably like a massive, five-headed dragon — but five minutes after that comes another gyropter, a jet-black one with no apparent markings, which sinks with deafening precision to hover a few feet above the surface of the parking lot. This is the gyropter that Cecil hops out of, waving cheerily to the pilot as it takes off again.

(For the record: he's wearing a set of feathery leg warmers, figure-hugging pink shorts, and a plaid vest over a black shirt so sheer it's translucent. Also, a set of noise-canceling earphones, though he shrugs these down around his neck when he spots Carlos.)

"Is there some kind of local gyropter taxi service I don't know about?" asks Carlos by way of greeting, still staring after the chopper as it shrinks to the size of a dragonfly against the clouds.

"Oh, no, black gyropters are from the World Consistorial Court. I've just done favors for a few of the pilots." Cecil pats the tote bag slung over his shoulders (black, decorated with multicolored felt circles), where presumably he's carrying the alethiometer. "So they'll give me a ride once in a while, if they're free at the time."

Carlos scoops up Isaña and accompanies him inside. "Are you sure that's a good idea? If the Magisterium found out about the...you know...."

"Well, my goodness, we don't let Magisterium agents know about it," says Cecil. "Think of the chaos that could bring to our sleepy little town! No, the Sheriff's secret police don't let them monitor Night Vale without a thorough re-education on how alethiometers don't exist, and would be totally unimportant even if they did."

Again, Carlos finds himself wondering which group is more intimidating. For all the iron grip and ruthless control the secret police exercise over the town, he can imagine it being as bad or worse if secret branches of the Church were allowed to run around the place unchecked.

"So next you just want me to do my usual show prep, and you'll take more photos and readings while that's happening, right?" continues Cecil.

Carlos almost insists that Cecil call his daemon before they do anything else. But no, the data will still be useful even if Khoshekh's not here, and Carlos can't object just because he has a personal agenda. Having a personal agenda is not part of being an experimental theologian. "That's right. Then we repeat the tests while you're actually on the air. And if there's a time in the future when your daemon is around too...we'd like to find out if that affects the readings."

Cecil's eyes widen. "Oh, Carlos! You haven't really met Khoshekh yet, have you? I hope that hasn't been bothering you! It's nothing personal, he's just being standoffish, you know how cats are...to tell you the truth, I think he's a bit shy. Worried about whether you'll like him, that sort of thing."

Does Cecil not know about the time Khoshekh called him? Somehow, Carlos doesn't think that calling someone "you perfect idiot" or semi-sarcastically purring "clever científico!" are signs of shyness.

Sidestepping the issue, Isaña says, "I'm sure we'll like him just fine."

"On an unrelated note," adds Carlos, "just out of curiosity, are we allowed to acknowledge the existence of dragons?"

"Dragons, generally speaking, do not exist...in our world," says Cecil. "We're not sure which world Hiram McDaniels originally came from, but he's here now, so you are welcome to acknowledge him. In fact, he's a fugitive from the law at the moment, so if you acknowledge him in the form of a helpful tip to the secret police, you could get a stamp on your Alert Citizen Card!"

Carlos winces. The idea of sending the secret police any information, aside from things explicitly required for town safety, makes him queasy. "When I saw them, they seemed to be doing fine keeping up with Hiram on their own."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Over the weekend there are more mysterious lights in the sky, this time over Niton Canyon.

The video, as developed with the Asriel emulsion and projected on one of the chapel walls, shows a flow pattern that instantly commands all of Dotan's attention. His thesis involves the fluid dynamics of Rusakov particles, which is not a topic Carlos expected to lead anywhere ground-breaking and frightening, but, well, Night Vale.

"These particles are draining," he says tersely, while his palm viper daemon coils in worried spirals up and down his arm. "Not drifting toward the ground as expected in a deserted area, and not following the normal pattern of attraction to humans, just flowing...as if they are in a tub with the stopper pulled."

"Is this a normal pattern of response to anything else?" asks Carlos hopefully, watching the golden glow of Dust flow abnormally quickly into the depths of the canyon.

Dotan bites his lip. "Nothing I know of. I can send it to my adviser, he would know better...How soon can we get this digitized?"

"If we set it up now? By tonight," says Jordan, whose tufted-deer daemon has been trotting in dainty circles around the floor: another small offloading of human distress. "We'll get the equipment started."

When the lights in the room come up, Dotan is already headed for the door. "We are going to ask the angels, who do not exist, if there is anything they know about it."

Fleur turns to Carlos. "Do you want to take care of informing Cecil?"

Carlos is about to admonish her to use Spanish, when he realizes she isn't teasing. Somewhere along the line, "informing Cecil" has become one of their standard emergency procedures. "Yes. I mean, someone has to, and yes, I can take care of it."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

He ends up visiting the station in person. Not for any special reason! The team just happened to need more tape cartridges for their label makers, and the craft store is right near the radio offices, and it was just convenient, all right? Besides, it's almost time for Cecil's show, and he might not check his phone before it starts, so this is the surest way to make sure he gets the message in time for the broadcast.

An intern named Stacy with a Pomeranian daemon shows Carlos and Isaña to Cecil's office, where the host has the alethiometer sitting on his desk, but is currently consulting a book instead. His fingers skim the pages: it's in Braille.

Carlos has wondered, guiltily, if Cecil might be making up his whole medically-unprecedented form of vision impairment. Apparently he's serious about being unable to distinguish printed words. Unless this is part of the ruse, and Cecil "just happens to be" using a Braille book at a time the alethiometer told him Carlos would stop by? Any book would do; he could tell Carlos it was anything, and it's not like Carlos has any way of knowing better....

But why would Cecil put on such an elaborate scheme at all? What would be the point? Carlos is being ridiculous.

"Carlos~!" trills Cecil, beaming at his visitors. "Beautiful Carlos and perfect Isaña. What can I help you with today? Or tomorrow? I'm not free on Friday, but my weekend is completely open. Especially if it involves dinner."

Shrugging off the flirtation, and as much suspicion as he can shake, Carlos describes the flickers and noises from Niton Canyon, and the mysterious movement of Dust that accompanies it. As if something is draining the Rusakov particles away, or sucking them in. It doesn't seem like a natural phenomenon..."Cecil, you are listening, right?"

"Of course!" Cecil's hand is still moving across the page. "I'm just trying to find a certain school board statute — it's a disgrace that the town by-laws have never been fully digitized, but what can you do? And don't say animal sacrifice, I've done that — anyway, you were talking about unnatural Rusakov phenomena, and not talking about your weekend plans. Go on."

"I really think this deserves your full attention! It's not that there are necessarily sinister forces at work here, but —"

"Carlos, do you want to sit down? You seem awfully worked up —"

"Because I'm scared for you!" yells Carlos.

Cecil blinks. His hand goes still.

"Scared for all of you," clarifies Carlos, because that is definitely what he meant. He throws in a vague expansive gesture meant to take in all of Night Vale: "In your...strange town."

"You know, Carlos, I do check for upcoming potential apocalypses every once in a while, and I can assure you, nothing coming along in the next year or so is that bad," says Cecil. "And it's not that I don't appreciate your concern...but we have managed to survive as an incorporated township for over two hundred years without the help of nearly this much experimental theology."

There's not a whisper of accusation in his tone, but it does take Carlos down a peg or two.

"Of course, I can see this is important to you, so I will certainly report it on the air and urge listeners to call in with any information they may have. Unless you would like to stay and be interviewed? Allow all our citizens to bask in the oaky tones of your voice?"

No, Carlos has embarrassed himself more than enough for one day already. "I would, but...we should get back to work."

"Diligent Carlos," sighs Cecil, the dictionary definition of wistful. "Of course you must."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

When Carlos gets back to the chapel, there isn't much work being done. Everyone present (Jordan, Henriette, and Gerald; Adriana is out with Brad and Fleur on a photography project, ready to provide any Spanish-language support they need) looks up when he gets in, and they're all disappointed when he doesn't have anything helpful to relate.

Dotan returns not long afterward, stumbling in out of the darkness in the wake of another too-early sunset. "The nonexistent angels have said they will look into it."

On come the soothing tones and eerie words of Cecil's show. They can't just sit around and listen to it while doing nothing, so Carlos turns up the volume and sets everyone to preparing a fresh batch of the Asriel emulsion. On air, Cecil reports the news about the lights and the noises, then goes on to talk about something called the Glow Cloud joining the PTA. When he describes the citywide memory loss and the town strewn with animal carcasses in its wake, Isaña shivers and leans against Carlos' foot.

"That explains the first day we lost," says Carlos softly.

It's happened other times since then — the local authorities will occasionally do something like cancel Wednesday — so he'd written it off as another Night Vale thing. Maybe it isn't, though. Maybe this Glow Cloud, like Hiram McDaniels, is a citizen of another world entirely who just happened to get stranded here. If this area has doorways opening on a regular basis....

Cecil is reporting traffic when all the lights flicker, and Erika manifests in the middle of the room.

This Erika is more visible than most of the others have been, even at night. The ten-foot-tall, unclothed, winged form stands out from its surroundings like a glass sculpture. "Be not afraid," she pronounces, using the English they all understand. "The doorway has been closed."

Which one? wonders Carlos.

Dotan puts the pieces together faster. "There was a doorway between worlds in Niton Canyon? Is that what caused the strange phenomenon? The Rusakov particles were flowing into another world?"

"Not another world. No world," says Erika solemnly. "An opening badly made does not connect smoothly between the worlds, but leaves a gap into the void between."

Everyone in the room shudders. The void is one of those cosmic phenomena that's impossible to measure directly, but in every mathematical model is horrifying. Like black holes, except that a black hole has never spontaneously appeared in the desert around Night Vale. (At least, as far as Carlos knows.)

Not to mention, the void comes up all the time in Lyra-and-Pan stories. Once they started having adventures that involved going to the world of the dead and coming back, the writers needed somewhere else to embody the horror of being lost forever.

"Be not afraid," repeats Erika. "We have closed the doorway. We close all the doorways. That is our task. The legacy of Will Parry shall not diminish."

With that, the angel fades out, passing through the world in a way that even a human with a portal could never accomplish, leaving the experimental theologians stunned on more levels than one.

Gerald speaks for all: "Did that angel just say Will Parry?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Because here's the thing: Will Parry isn't real.

He's only in the Lyra-and-Pan stories as a marketing ploy. A boy character invented to be Lyra's sidekick, to make the stories more palatable to young boy readers who are skeptical about anything too focused on girls. Erika was probably speaking metaphorically, or something. There's a historical Dr. Belacqua and her Pantalaimon, but there's no counterpart in the real world for Will and his Moxie.

Right?

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

In bed that night, Isaña leans against Carlos' chest and whispers, "Not in this world."

And when Carlos falls asleep, it's into confused dreams full of angels and harpies, sphinxes and naga, glow clouds and kraken, tree spirits and dragons, frost giants and warriors so tiny they use dragonflies as steeds: all the creatures Lyra and Pan ever met, plus some that they didn't, but would probably have taken in stride if they had.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Saturday is the team's day off. Carlos is in a somber mood, but after Henriette gets him to admit that he doesn't have any particular weekend plans, she and a few others drag him and Isaña to the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex.

On the plus side, Teddy Williams having a promotion: free basket of buffalo wings with every game. Unfortunately, the experimental theologians aren't the only ones wanting to take advantage of it. The place is so crowded that Gerald goes home, uncomfortable with his large-sized daemon around so many people, and the rest of them grab a table in the snack area to wait for a free lane.

(Well, Lane Five is free, but it's also closed "because nothing matters any more.")

They get a table in the snack area, and watch the competition heat up between Lane Seven and Lane Eight. The team at Seven includes Steve Carlsberg, badger daemon curled up snugly under the seats, and Leann Hart, with a rainbow lorikeet on her shoulders that's almost as loud as she is. Carlos figures out who she is when Cecil, in the team at Eight, heckles a bad frame with "You're dying in here, Leann! Dying almost as hard as print journalism!"

"Oh, shut your trap, Community Radio!" fires back Leann. "At least our news is objective! And, on Sundays, part of a balanced breakfast!"

(On Sundays, newspaper kiosks across Night Vale are filled with 2% milk. Carlos wonders if he should be worried that he's used to this by now.)

"Everyone hush, I need to concentrate," orders Josie. The witch is on Cecil's team, her falcon daemon as absent as Khoshekh; instead, she's accompanied by two blue-and-white birds that Carlos suspects are transformed angels. Rather than leaning on her cloud-pine cane to walk up to the lane, she sits sidesaddle on the wood, glides into place, and bowls while floating about two feet off the ground.

Carlos doesn't catch what she scores, because that's the point when Henriette returns to their table with wine coolers for everyone, and says, in Spanish, "Enjoying the view, Dr. Ramirez?"

"I was watching the game," says Carlos testily, and, "Why are you being so formal?"

"Me? I'm not the one who wore a chapel coat to go bowling."

Carlos looks down at his outfit. "This is a casual weekend chapel coat," he informs them, only half kidding.

"Uh-huh. Sure."

"Carlos~!"

Cecil's finally spotted them. He waves when Carlos turns back toward Lane Eight, and pats one of the empty seats in invitation before getting back to the important business of yelling at Lane Seven that floating is totally within the rules, ugh, look it up before you start getting all high-and-mighty, Steve.

"What kind of vision impairment is Cecil supposed to have, again?" murmurs Brad in English.

Henriette grins. "The kind where he can't see anyone but Carlos."

Carlos rolls his eyes, but scoops up Isaña, who's been sitting in his lap. "Does anyone mind if we...?"

The others shake their heads and wave him along.

Cecil practically vibrates with delight when Carlos settles into one of their free seats. "Carlos! I'm so excited you could join us. It's too late to fold you into the game, but you can help yourself to some wings — especially if you like celery, nobody else is eating it — have you met everyone here?"

The only other person in this group Carlos knows is Josie, so Cecil introduces his other teammates. There's NVCR's latest intern, also named Brad, who's black — not Afro like Fleur or Carlos' grandmother, his skin is literally the color black. A man named Walter Kincaid has a third eye on his forehead — not a metaphorical third eye from trepanning like Cecil has, but a standard hazel human eye, tipped slightly sideways. Frances Donaldson is a woman taller than Carlos (nothing supernatural about that, it's just rare), who tries to convince him that his team could use some antique lamps while her brightly-colored frog daemon stares down Isaña with bulbous red eyes.

Carlos declines to buy any antiques. He eats some celery, slathered in vinegar and buffalo sauce. Cecil, in between frames, asks if he caught the end of the show last night: when it was reported the mysterious lights and noises were definitely not a Pink Floyd Multimedia Laser Spectacular secretly arranged using public funds for the enjoyment of the City Council.

"We heard," says Carlos glumly. Portals that spontaneously appear because of some natural phenomena are one thing. Portals that are created, by some clandestine effort of the City Council, and come out bungled in such a way that the results suck Rusakov particles out of the air? "The situation is even worse than we imagined."

"You should probably not imagine it too much," says Cecil cheerfully. He runs his index finger along the wax paper lining the mostly-empty basket of wings, sopping up some extra buffalo sauce. "In particular, if you can make yourself forget that Pink Floyd ever existed, that would probably be safest all around."

So saying, he slips the digit into his mouth.

It's always seemed like a pretty average mouth to Carlos, but for a few dizzying seconds his vision tunnels so that all he can see is Cecil's lips: pursed, sealed wetly around the base of his finger. Cecil's cheeks move slightly as his tongue swirls; his eyes flutter closed. He lets out a small hum of pleasure at the taste, and that's the only thing Carlos hears, too, every other sound in the busy bowling alley fading into so much white noise.

As fast as it happened, it's over. Cecil is scrubbing his greasy fingers clean with a paper napkin; the rest of the world is carrying on as normal around them.

Carlos whips off his glasses and polishes them with the edge of his sleeve, mostly to give himself something nice and non-suspicious to be doing if anybody looks his way. Isaña leans reassuringly against his leg. Her eyesight isn't good enough to have picked out the motions, but she can tell that Carlos's heart is pounding and he needs a little steadying, and that he'll explain the whole thing later, once they're alone.

He doesn't even want to think about what would happen if the news got around town that yes, Carlos el Teólogo Experimental might actually be attracted to Cecil Palmero.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Just to his mouth," corrects Isaña.

"Well, yes." Carlos runs a hand across the spines of the middle row of his bookshelf. They've been rearranged, yet again; every few weeks he comes home to find them all out of order, a phenomenon he's starting to think of as the Recurring Extremely Localized Night Vale Bookquake. "And...possibly his finger."

(The only way to be sure would be to test it, by having Cecil sensually suck on various other things and observing Carlos' reactions. They are not going to do that experiment. You couldn't pay Carlos to do that experiment.)

Isaña paces back and forth in front of the growing pile of mis-sorted books Carlos is pulling off the shelf. "It's not as if we could even say 'he's cute' at this point."

"Also true." Without having seen his daemon...it's about as useful as looking at a photo of a model with the head cropped off. You can reduce them to parts, comment that they have nice legs, or a sexy chest, but are they cute in general? Who knows?

"Carlos?" Isaña sits back on her hind legs, nose twitching in the air. "Are we freaking out at all that he's a he?"

Carlos sits back on his heels, clutching a copy of Lyra Belacqua's Origins of the General Theory of Alethiometry. "I think, if we're freaking out over anything, it's the idea that he really has been playing us this whole time, and now it's just starting to work."

And that's not unmanageable, right? All they have to do is be on their guard. Make sure that this, whatever it is, doesn't go too far.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Besides, where would Carlos even find the time to be physically attracted to someone?

He has experiments to run, data to analyze, endless application forms to fill out in order to keep them on the right side of local law, increasingly-selective reports to write and send back to Harvard. In spite of Cecil's assurances that there are no serious imminent catastrophes, he has long-honed experimental instincts telling him that this portal quandary is dangerous in the long term, and the sooner they solve it, the better.

"Carlos?"

Not to mention the pile of other mysteries his team is already trying to deal with, and the new ones that hit practically every week. Right after the bowling outing, Fleur got some bizarre Night Vale skin condition that involved a long spiral horn growing on her lower back, and had to be hospitalized for several days. No sooner did she get back to work than there was the giant telepathic pyramid to figure out how to deal with.

Cecil, in his on-air reports, was convinced it was a viral marketing scheme. All Carlos knows is that it seems to have beamed an answer into Henriette's head about how to take her son's dropping out of college. And it's not like Carlos thinks "allow your child to find his own path" is bad advice, necessarily — but did Henriette take it by choice, or were her feelings somehow written over?

"Carlos...."

And on that note, how can Carlos trust his own feelings?

With all the forces in Night Vale that can rewire your mind or your memories, it only makes sense to be skeptical. Cecil has admitted to having quid-pro-quo deals with the Magisterium; there's no reason he couldn't bargain a little mind control out of the Sheriff's secret police. Or the Glow Cloud. Or anyone/anything else.

Carlos isn't such a walking stereotype that he's never had a sexual experience, but they've been rare, and only moderately fulfilling. It makes perfect sense to be suspicious now that he's suddenly....

"Hey, Carlos, look, a portal!"

Carlos sits bolt upright, looking sharply at Adriana, then all around the office. No portals in sight.

"Sorry, but you've been staring at your laptop and not responding to anything for like ten minutes," says Adriana briskly, iguana daemon nodding on her shoulder. "We were getting worried you'd been zapped with something."

"Just lost in thought," Carlos assures her, pulling off his glasses and massaging his brow. His eyes are sore, as if he hasn't been blinking enough. Isaña, who's been dozing on his lap, starts to stir. "What's going on? Anyone in trouble?"

"No, nothing like that. I mean, maybe they are, but nobody's called." Most of the team is out taking the day's readings; it's just Carlos and these two students, Brad and Adriana, here at the chapel. "Brad had this idea, and it sounds like a jackpot to me, but we figured we should run it by you, if not get you to supervise."

Carlos accompanies her to the ordinater room, where Brad is in the middle of the long, plodding task of digitizing what are hopefully the most significant photos in their growing collection. He sets the scanner to work on the latest rows of film, then gets to his feet.

"It's just an idea, we don't have to do it," he says, stroking the hamster daemon in his shirt pocket for reassurance. "But I've been wondering what would happen if we treated some of our electrum lenses with the Asriel solution."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Once he's said it, it seems so obvious.

For the sake of having a baseline to experiment from, they treat two pieces of electrum (one flat plate, one convex lens) like photograms, running them through the same exposures and the same chemical baths as their latest batch of film. The finished pieces look the same from an angle. Same shininess, same orange-yellow color, same gradients and impurities within.

But when you look directly through them, avoiding the angles at which they refract light, everything changes. The tint of the stone itself vanishes; the colors on the other side come through with no orangey tint. Instead they come through true, but more vivid — as if they've been run through some kind of digital filter to make them more intense.

The effect is beautiful. Somebody swaps the treated plate into the cheap hobby spyglass, and the experimental theologians take turns passing it around, looking at different parts of the chapel, at the Big Rico's next door, at their daemons, at the horizon, at each other.

"We need to get photos of these, to see what they look like via the Asriel emulsion," declares Fleur, in the back yard of the rental watching the two-hours-late sunset. "We need to get photos through these. To see if the vividness correlates in any way with local Rusakov concentrations. We need...well, first, we need to buy a lot more film."

"We should find out if they make the angels more or less distinct, compared to unfiltered light," puts in Dotan.

"Not everything has to be about angels, kid," says Gerald. "Especially considering that they don't exist!" he adds to the yard in general.

"We appreciate your diligence!" calls a bush in the yard next door.

There's a moment when everybody pauses, trying to figure out if it's a good idea to acknowledge that or not.

Then they collectively shrug it off. "Anyway, congratulations, Brad," says Adriana, slapping the broad-shouldered young man on the back. "Looks like you might be the first person here to get some results that are actually publishable."

Chapter Text

The violent, street-artist, libertarian, well-decorated pack of feral dogs almost certainly got here from a different world. Carlos sends Gerald and Adriana to follow the radio reports and see if they can't track the pack down.

Adriana and Henriette have a vague plan to try to analyze otherworldly DNA and tissue samples, but so far, no subjects. The bodies of the pterodactyls from a few months ago were thrown back into their portal before an angel closed it. Hiram McDaniels is on the run from the law, and while his blog has continued to update, he hasn't responded to Carlos' email requesting a meeting. The Glow Cloud is even more accessible, being at every PTA meeting...but it doesn't have any tissues, let alone DNA.

They don't end up getting any luckier with the dogs, which are gone by evening. Also, officially never existed.

Back home, Carlos and Adriana cross paths in the kitchen, where the grad student fishes some leftover takeout out of the fridge and squeezes past Carlos (who's chopping broccoli for stir-fry) to get to the microwave. "So here's an idea," she says as the machine hums. "Let's ask Cecil for the times and places where the next few portals are going to open."

"Good plan," says Carlos. "Are you or Henriette in the group going to Point A tomorrow? Even if not, you could probably swing by anyway."

"Uh...sure, we could." Adriana sets her iguana daemon on the counter next to Isaña, pulls the scrunchie out of her hair, and re-does her ponytail. It's long and dark and glossy and probably looks a lot like Carlos's would if he grew it out...not that he's planning to.

"Don't forget to specify low-risk ones," says Carlos, tipping the cutting board and using the knife to guide the broccoli into a spare bowl. "I'm not having anyone else go out like Emily. Some other parameters would probably help too — think about location, size, the nature of what's likely to come through, and anything else Henriette says is important. Cecil might be able to suggest more himself, too. He's the one with experience using alethiometry to get helpful answers...."

"Look, are you sure you don't want to ask him yourself?" cuts in Adriana. "Especially since he'll be a lot more excited to answer if he gets to see how your hair's growing back in."

She switched to Spanish halfway through the sentence, and Carlos automatically replies in kind while starting to dice the chicken. "That's exactly why I'd rather not. This isn't a personal favor, it's a service to the project. If we're going to start officially compensating him, it should be with Starbucks gift cards like anybody else."

"Starbucks gift cards are what you give someone who spends half an hour filling out a questionnaire about what vitamins they've taken in the last six months." The microwave beeps; Adriana retrieves her plastic tray of noodles and pokes at them with a fork. "What do you think would be the asking rate, out in the real world, for an alethiometrist like Cecil? Because I'm pretty sure it's not inside our budget."

"All the more reason not to over-inflate the value of the sight of my face," says Carlos. "Besides, what if something happens to me and Isaña?" In his most professional English: "The rest of you can't have a major avenue of research knocked out from under you if we get sent home after an attack from the next pack of...." Quoting the words from the radio flips him back to Spanish. "...street-artist libertarian feral...uh....what's the official story again?"

"Plastic bags."

"That's right." Carlos looks around for the soy sauce. Isaña, sitting on the counter between it and the broccoli, pushes the bottle in his direction. "Feral plastic bags."

"Had to take the most depressing option, didn't you?" says Adriana. "Why not 'if we stay healthy and safe, but one day Cecil falls out of love instantly'?"

"Sure," deadpans Carlos. "Let's talk about which of these scenarios seems more likely."

"Hey, you never know." Adriana scoops up her iguana and drapes him over her shoulder, where his claws stick in the fabric of her shirt to hold himself in place. "He went from zero to Carlos Perfecto based on you giving a presentation. There's no reason he couldn't go the other way if you...."

She trails off, like she was about to throw in a genuine criticism and thought better of it. Carlos is reminded of a younger version of her adviser: same quick mind and biting sense of humor, but tempered by the fear of stepping on the toes of people a few ranks higher on the academic food chain. "No need to spare my feelings. If it's for the sake of all our research, I'd rather know."

"It's not that big a deal," hedges Adriana. "Just...be careful about eating in front of him, all right? At least, nothing solid. Stick to soup and you'll probably be okay."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

In the end Adriana and Henriette do end up going with the next team to Point A, along with the photographers. Gerald and Jordan insist they can cover Point E alone, really, and this time one of them might even get up the nerve to go up and knock on the door of the house that doesn't exist.

So it's Carlos and Dotan driving the hybrid to Josie's, to get, among other things, the latest angelic reactions to one of their electrum spyglasses. (They have two telescopes now, and a variety of alternate lenses.) The sky is an ugly shade of puce, but Carlos, behind the wheel, doesn't think anything of it. At least it's closer to the natural range of sky colors than yesterday's hot pink.

There's a hard wind whipping through the scrub by the time he parks in front of the yellow brick house.

The team had briefly tried to offer the witch some Starbucks gift cards as compensation for her time and the use of her house; she negotiated for home cooking, delivered. Carlos gets the tupperware full of stir-fry, Dotan takes the pitcher of iced tea, and they make their windswept way up Josie's front steps. Isaña races ahead of them up to the porch before she can get blown over.

A mostly-invisible Erika lets them in.

"I can't believe you made it out here!" exclaims Josie in her accented English, leaning heavily on her cane to come greet them as Carlos and company try not to track sand onto her carpets. "Didn't you hear the news? There's a sandstorm coming!"

Carlos remembers, all right. But..."That was scheduled for Thursday, wasn't it?"

"The SSP moved it up a few days," grumbles Josie. It takes Carlos a few seconds to place the acronym: Secretaría de Seguridad Pública, Hispania Nova's national security ministry. "Oooh, you boys are just lucky it wasn't a capital-S Sandstorm. Hope you can do your experimental theology inside, because you certainly aren't going back out there."

"We can conduct our experiments wherever the angels will greet us, insha'Allah," says Dotan.

A bodiless voice to Carlos's left grumbles, "Must he say that?"

"It's just an expression," says Carlos. Dotan tosses in the phrase like punctuation whenever they're talking about future plans, as a nod to the folly of getting over-confident. Religious sentiment aside, it's a mindset Carlos thinks experimental theology could adopt more often.

Dotan's palm viper daemon lets out a little hiss of discomfort as Dotan says, "It is not just an expression."

"Don't mind Erika, he's a new arrival." Josie shakes her cane at the empty space to Carlos's left: a grandmotherly sort of gesture that makes her seem more like her real age, instead of the mid-thirties she appears to be. "Now Erika, we did warn you. These people are guests! If you can't be civil, then go downstairs and take another crack at figuring out why the boiler's acting up."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos sends out the standard check-in text for emergency situations, and gets back assurances that the others are safely inside either in the radio station, or with the family in the existing house to the left of the nonexistent one.

(Jordan's text adds, if we offer ppl $5 to ring nonexistent doorbell is it eligible 4 grant reimbursement? just curious. Carlos's reply is Sure, if in gift card form so you have receipts.)

They do as many of their planned tests as possible, and, since they're going to be here for a while, make up some new ones. Outside, the sandstorm rolls across the desert like a thick wall of ground-based beige clouds; the streetlights start automatically switching on as it blots out the sun. Inside, the data suggests that angel-touched items have temporarily elevated Rusakov readings, but it takes less than an hour for the effect to fade.

At some point Carlos slips away to find Josie's bathroom. The witch is in her own room, talking on the phone; he catches a conversational tone as he passes by, switching between the familiar rhythms of Spanish and the unfamiliar language he's only heard her use with her daemon. One of the Lapp languages, Carlos assumes. Her native tongue.

He isn't planning to eavesdrop. It's just that, on the way back, he overhears, "Dark blue, with a lovely print of the Northern Lights across the front."

She's describing Carlos's T-shirt.

Carlos trades a look with Isaña, then presses himself against the wall on one side of Josie's partly-open door. She continues with something in probably-Lapp, then tosses in the Spanish sí, una bata, followed by a cheerful laugh.

It isn't that funny that Carlos keeps incidentally wearing a chapel coat everywhere.

He can't figure out who she would bother reporting any of this to, though, and it worries him. The Sheriff's secret police could take their own notes on his outfits if they wanted. The Magisterium would hardly agree to work with a witch, and vice versa. Who else would be targeting him? They have to be targeting him, because why else would you need to know the exact outfit someone's wearing, if not to follow, grab, and/or snipe them?

"...yes, yes, all right," says Josie warmly. "Mana dearvan. Have fun with the show."

Oh, right.

Josie's uneven footsteps are moving towards the hall now so Carlos quits skulking around and stands up straight, crossing his arms and trying to look official. He may be a couple centuries younger than Josie, but he's also a couple of heads taller, which has to count for something.

The door swings all the way open, and Josie does a double-take. "Hello, dear," she says with a frown, switching back to the English she usually uses with the experimental theologians. "Did you need something?"

Carlos doesn't beat around the bush. "Do you always report to Cecil about what I'm wearing?"

"Oh, no, of course not." Josie folds both hands over the head of her cane. "But if we end up chatting while you happen to be around, why, he barely wants to hear about anything else! And I don't understand your work well enough to talk about that for too long."

She makes it sound so reasonable.

And maybe the thing about the chapel coats is a little bit funny. The kind of amusing anecdote you'd want to share.

"He's mentioned that you help him with colors sometimes," remembers Carlos. "It's really nice of you to do that."

"Oh, what are friends for?" says Josie amiably. "By the by, if you ever want me to fill you in on some details about Cecil, just ask. I've been living in this town since before he was born, you know. Used to babysit him and...ah, and Khoshekh, back when he was this high."

Carlos notices the pause, the hasty self-editing, but doesn't comment. Asking about Cecil's childhood would be getting into personal questions, and he's at least trying to keep his interest professional. "I do have one question. In the name of research," he says instead. "The other language you were speaking with him...is he fluent? No accent?"

"Why, of course he's fluent," says Josie. "He's the Voice of Night Vale."

That doesn't explain as much as she seems to think it does.

Before Carlos can ask for more details, something in the front room goes crash.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The angels in Josie's living room are anything but invisible now. They burn with holy light, illuminating the clouds of sand outside the windows to a burnished gold. Four of them form a circle around one of the armchairs, pacing and posturing at each other, wings furling eerily as they move in a way Carlos suspects is not limited to three dimensions. A shattered vase lies on the floor behind Erika, probably a victim of that non-Euclidean motion.

Dotan, in the armchair, looks terrified. His palm viper daemon is tucked under his shirt, head poking up from one side of his collar.

"He is an enemy of the Republic," snaps Erika, in a bell-like tone that makes the windows ring. This angel stands slightly apart, Carlos realizes; the others form a loose semicircle, three against one.

"He is a follower of Lyra Silvertongue," counters Erika. "He serves her cause, whether he understands that or not."

"He dishonors the memory of Lyra Silvertongue!" cries Erika.

Carlos and Isaña squeeze between two of the Dotan-defending angels. Even bright and solid, humming with the power of cosmic forces that humanity has only begun to understand, they're still physically weak. "Everyone calm down!" he exclaims, clasping the grad student's shoulder in support. "I'm sure we can talk this out."

The angel before him fixes him with a fiery glare — and for a split second Carlos has a vision of something infinitely greater than a tall humanoid with wings, too vast to wrap his mind around, more like architecture than organism...something he can't compress into words at all, no matter what language he reaches for.

"Your student dishonors the memory of all those who fought in the War," says Erika, though Carlos' head is spinning so much he barely hears it. "Of all those who fell. Of Baruch, of Balthamos, of —"

"Oh, for goodness' sake, you don't need to list them all," says Josie, gliding in on her cane and hovering high enough that she's at eye level with the angry Erika. "He's not going to recognize any of the names except Lyra Silvertongue anyway."

"Not even one? If he knows so little of her journey, how can he claim to follow —"

"I don't!" cries Dotan. "I mean — Dr. Belacqua was a brilliant Scholar, and it would be an honor to make a tenth of the contribution to human knowledge that she has, but I follow the teachings of the Prophet — I mean, I have always tried to —" He's shaking. "I have done something to offend. Please, if you would only tell me —"

"Child." One of the Erikas behind Carlos reaches past him to caress Dotan's cheek. "You must stop trying to run more quickly when the problem is that you are going in the wrong direction."

She follows this up with a few syllables of Arabic.

Dotan takes it as a prompt, and recites the whole phrase. "La 'ilaha 'illa-llah, Muhammadun rasulu-llah." It's another of the few Carlos recognizes: the Mohammedan creed, which is pleasantly concise compared to most of the Magisterium's.

Erika shakes her head, and repeats the first part of the phrase.

Dotan says something that, based on the tone and the plaintive confusion in his face, is probably I don't understand.

Then all the Erikas are talking, each in turn, short Arabic phrases that Carlos has no hope of tracking, except for the occasional allah. He can't tell if they're having a rapid-fire argument, or agreeing so thoroughly that they're finishing each other's sentences. A look at Josie only gets him a shrug; she isn't following this any better than he is.

At last the angels finish. The tension is gone from their stances; their wings are folded and still.

This time Dotan is lost for words. Carlos doesn't even know what to make of his expression.

Without warning, the angels raise their heads. "We are called," says Erika, and like a flock of birds taking off from a treetop they all step out of the world, leaving no sound but the winds buffeting the little house.

Carlos breaks the silence in a whisper. "Are they...gone?"

"Sometimes they disappear for a week at a time, but they've always come back," says Josie, landing. In a gentle voice she addresses Dotan. "You know, dear, around here we have a quaint local custom for when we've been through something awfully straining. ...Drink to forget."

Carlos had thought there was a religious prohibition on alcohol, either on Mohammedans in general or Dotan's sect in particular, but all the kid says is, "Okay."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

By the time the sandstorm passes, Dotan is a melancholy mess of slurring and non-coordination. It's a good thing Josie's falcon daemon returns not long afterward, because although Carlos can get Dotan to stumble to the car, his daemon is a few sizes too large for Isaña to lift.

The group from the radio station hasn't made it back to the houses by the time he returns, but the (slightly sandblasted) pickup is in the driveway, so Carlos finds Jordan and daemon and enlists their help. "It's his first time, and I still don't know exactly what the angels said to him, so I'm ready to cut him a lot of slack. Let's try to save him as much embarrassment as possible, all right?"

The tufted deer can also manage carrying the snake, while Jordan and Carlos between them get Dotan to his room. "Frankly," confesses Jordan, "I always chalked it up to angelic protection that he hadn't felt the need to get plastered since arriving in this town. Lord knows all the rest of us have."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos leaves the junior researcher to keep an eye on Dotan and makes a quiet drive up to the chapel. Isaña trots along in silence at his heels while he unloads the equipment and brings it inside piece by piece. It's been a while since he ate, and Big Rico's is having a Sandstorm Special, so he orders that without looking too hard at the ingredients.

"I've been thinking," he says presently, in English, while picking quail feathers off his pizza.

It's kind of a pointless opener, because thinking comes with the job, but in his lap Isaña nods. "About what?"

"Early natural philosophers." It's an old name for their field, from the centuries before the Church was even a twinkle in a Nazarene woman's eye, when any kind of research into the way the world worked was considered a sub-branch of philosophy instead of theology. Much as Carlos would like science to take off as a term in its own right, he can understand the reasoning. "The ancient Greeks and Vedics, mostly."

Isaña knows the history of their discipline as well as he does. "The original atomists?"

Carlos nods. "The ones who first worked out the existence of elementary particles. But they didn't even have the equipment to observe molecules, were only guessing about atoms, and didn't have the first idea that neutrons or quarks or Rusakov particles existed. So they came up with theories like, since water flows, water atoms must be round and smooth. Everything they observed was squashed into the metaphors of things they actually understood."

"They did what they could with what they had," says his daemon.

"Oh, of course! I'm not holding it against them," says Carlos quickly. "I'm just wondering...if you devote your career to studying and writing about a field, when your equipment and your own perception are so limited that there's no way you can get it anything but wrong...are you wasting your time?"

Isaña leans against his stomach and pulls a corner of his chapel coat over herself. "No," she says stubbornly. "Eat your pizza."

So Carlos does. And, in the process, tries to figure out what Adriana thought might be a problem with the way he eats.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Half the team is watching a bad spec-fic movie in the main room of the larger rental when Carlos gets back. He sticks around for the ending, where the aliens in rubber masks take off in their cardboard spaceship and flee back to their home planet.

Adriana catches him on the way out. "Good news!" she exclaims. "Cecil said it would be a while before any non-dangerous portals opened, but he also said the entire local tarantula community is otherworldly! And he thinks it'll be very easy for me to make some connections if I get involved with the Teach A Spider To Read program. He even said he'd write me a recommendation if I needed one!"

Carlos is delighted for her, and says so. At least in some areas of their research, things are looking up.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Get up!"

Hm?

"Carlos, we need you! You have to wake up."

Carlos pries his eyes open. The cold grey tone of the light filtering through his window suggests that it's just before sunrise. "Wha-huh?"

"We have a situation," says Henriette. She's the one shaking him and yelling at him.

"You deal w'it," mumbles Carlos. If he wanted to be personally responsible for solving every crisis, he wouldn't have brought senior researchers along.

"I have. My executive decision is that it's time to call Cecil, and if one of us has to bother him at this hour, it's going to be you. Brad's making coffee. Come on."

Carlos groans, but drags himself up. "Lemme get dressed."

Henriette takes it upon herself to rifle through his closet and throw a T-shirt and chapel coat at him. Carlos is too bleary to figure out whether that second item is a joke, but he's only wearing pajama pants and he doesn't own a bathrobe, so he pulls both items on and places a yawning Isaña on Henriette's daemon's back. At least she's small enough that the alpine marmot can carry her downstairs.

The house is quiet; nobody else is awake yet except a ragged-looking Brad, sitting with three mugs of coffee. Carlos takes one and drags his fingers through his hair; three months post-haircut, it's starting to get affected by bed-head again. "Mm'kay. Something happened? Fill me in."

"Dotan's missing," says Brad hoarsely.

"As is one of the cars," adds Henriette. "Didn't leave a note or anything. We've scoured both houses. Tried his phone, too — he left it in his room. Then we called Big Rico's to ask if he was at the chapel. They haven't seen him."

Carlos takes several long gulps of coffee.

Dotan could be taking an early-morning drive alone to clear his head. It's not unreasonable. But his state of mind yesterday wasn't encouraging, and even if he'd recovered completely, the team has check-in policies for a reason: he could still have disappeared under the influence of a telepathic pyramid, or just about anything else.

They need some way of confirming that he's okay. And they need a source whose knowledge is absolute, which means the alethiometer. Unless....

"Everybody hold on," says Carlos through a yawn. "Somethin' I gotta try."

With that, he makes a beeline for the front door and goes outside, striding down the front steps with Isaña trotting at his heels.

It's pleasantly cool in the pre-dawn silver, with dew all over the grass. Carlos walks through it, stopping on a patch that's nice and soft on his bare feet, and addresses the empty street in general: "Police!"

After a few seconds of silence, he catches a metallic scraping sound. The manhole cover across the street turns, grinding and slow, then pops up from the asphalt to uncover two heads: human and canine respectively, both covered with appropriately-shaped balaclavas. "Yes?" calls the human.

"You didn't happen to pick up another member of our team recently, did you? He's about yea high, dark hair, olive skin, snake daemon?"

"Wasn't us," says the secret police officer. "Someone fitting that description did take off in one of your cars about half an hour ago, though." She points east down the road. "He went that way."

"Much appreciated," says Carlos. "We need to know where the car is now. Can you help us with that?"

"Uh...we don't really tail local civilians on behalf of other local civilians. I mean, it's not against regulations or anything, it's just not in our mission statement."

"Oh, sure! Of course, I completely understand." Carlos mimes taking out a phone and pressing a couple of buttons, then holds his hand to his ear. "Hi, Cecil! Funny story to tell you. I got to chatting with one of the officers on duty near our houses, you know, with the Doberman daemon...and she said it looked like I needed another haircut. She recommended this great barber in Pine Cliffs, and even offered to give me a coupon...."

"Okay, okay!" yells the officer. "Just give me a minute to call HQ and get that location for you."

Carlos turns back to the house, where Brad and Henriette are watching from the doorway. The caffeine is taking its sweet time to kick in, but that's all right, because in some ways Night Vale makes a lot more sense when you're half-asleep. "Which of you is feeling more awake?" he calls. "Because that one of you is driving."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The hybrid is parked just off the side of the highway, on a scrubby, rocky patch of terrain whose only appeal as a parking space is that it's mostly horizontal. About fifty feet further on, the terrain goes totally vertical, except for the bridge which launches outward from one side of Niton Canyon to the other: an engineering triumph of cement and steel.

Brad pulls the van over next to the car. Carlos and Isaña are out almost before it stops, scrambling up the nearest rise in a quest for high ground. He's glad he brought shoes.

The bridge is lined with sturdy chain-link fence, reinforced, curving inward at the top. It encourages oversize vehicles and would-be jumpers alike to make alternate plans. A long row of similar fencing wings out from either side, keeping the edge of the canyon similarly inaccessible for as far as Carlos can see.

Dotan is already on the far side of the fence.

He's sitting on an uneven ledge of folded sandstone with his feet resting on a lower one in front of him, and as far as Carlos can tell, there are only a few more ledges before the lumpy rock drops off completely. He looks up when Carlos calls his name, then curls in on himself, shoulders hunched.

Carlos makes his way down the scrubby slope. Chips of sandstone rattle downward with every careful step; Isaña is practically sliding alongside him. "I'm really glad we found you, Dotan. You should probably come back to this side of the fence, all right?"

"I am glad you found me too," says Dotan, voice resonating strangely across the canyon. "I did not mean for you to lose the car. You can take it back now."

At least he doesn't sound mind-controlled. "We know where the car is, so we can pick it up any time," says Carlos gently. "We're getting you home first, all right?"

"There's no point!" yells Dotan.

Carlos is a few yards plus a fence away from him by now, with Brad not far behind. "What are you talking about?" demands Brad, who's probably the closest thing to a friend that the reserved Dotan has for miles around. "You're scaring me! Come back over here."

"I don't know what the angels told you," adds Carlos, "but you should talk it over with someone, all right?"

Facing away from them, his daemon a speckled loop of scaly green over his shoulders, Dotan says, "They told me God is dead."

...Ah.

"I never thought my faith had all the answers!" continues Dotan, starting to choke up. "That's why I wanted to be an experimental theologian, and not a cleric. But if it has nothing — if there is no meaning, no greater purpose, just random universes where we all flicker into existence and out again just like that —"

He picks up a fist-sized chunk of sandstone from the rock next to him and hurls it over the edge of the canyon. It's out of sight in the blink of an eye.

"The angels say there is no Heaven for us after death, either. So how can any of this matter?"

Carlos doesn't know what to say. His own recent existential crisis pales in comparison. He's only ever believed in angels as an extension of the natural world, while Dotan has spent his whole adult life praying in the expectation that a higher power was listening.

"Well...maybe the angels are wrong!" says Brad. "You know what Cecil's always saying on the radio. They only tell lies, remember?"

"...y ellos no existen," says Dotan, finishing the phrase, quoting Cecil's original Spanish instead of translating it.

Brad falters. "Okay, sure, he said that too, but —"

"I'm sorry for what I said about him." Dotan is shaking again, sniffling, wiping his eyes. "I'm sorry, Carlos. He is not doing anything wrong. I think — most of what I did in the name of the Prophet was the right thing, I think, but — I was wrong, then. And if I have wronged you in any other way — either of you — I am sorry."

"Dotan." Carlos grabs the fence, hand curling helplessly around the silver links. He could climb it, but there's barbed wire at the top, and even without that he wouldn't be fast enough. "Dotan, don't do this."

With a slightly hysterical laugh, Dotan sobs, "Why not?"

And then he jumps.

Brad lets out a wordless cry. Carlos throws himself against the fence, shouting Dotan's name over the rattling metal. It's pointless — he's gone, and they can see it — the vast empty canyon is big enough to swallow a hundred of him, leaving nothing but silence —

Silence, and the wind, and Brad starting to come apart, and Carlos' heart hammering against his ribs —

— and the echoes of Dotan's voice, carried ghoulishly back to their ears from the depths of the rock —

— and the wind

— which isn't wind at all.

The shape rises into their line of vision slowly, steadily, in defiance of the laws of physics. Two stories tall. Massive wings of tawny, speckled feathers, some of the pinions as long as the van — every wingbeat sends a blast of air in Carlos and Brad's direction, showering them with dust. Colorful crests on each of its — his — five heads, with their bulging reptilian eyes and long, bony, sharp-toothed beaks.

Most importantly, the beak of the golden head is closed around Dotan's torso.

"'Scuse me," says the brick-red head in a folksy Spanish drawl, snaking down and forward as he hovers near eye level with the experimental theologians. "You gentlemen wouldn't happen to be the ones who've been throwing stuff over this here edge, would you?"

"Not at all, Mr. McDaniels," says Carlos, hanging on to the swaying fence to keep from stumbling backward under the gusts. "In fact, we were trying very hard to stop anything else from going over. Can we have him back now? Please?"

Hiram lands on the rock, wings curved forward to keep his weight from overbalancing in the wrong direction. His feathers blot out the early-morning sun as his golden head drops Dotan, shirt in tatters with more than a few bloody scrapes underneath, onto the scrubby ground beside them.

There's no snake daemon in sight.

Then Hiram's green head, beak firmly closed, winds its way over too...and spits the palm viper onto Dotan's chest.

Carlos nudges Brad in their direction, and tries to look like he knows what he's doing as Hiram's purple head snaps down to eyeball him from less than a yard away. "He's a Scholar! He's after the secrets!" it shrieks, in a breathy voice shaking with paranoia. "They can use that, don't you see? Use him to open the doors!"

Before it can rant any further, the golden head drags it out of the way. "Sorry 'bout that," drawls the brick-red head. "My purple head gets a little excited sometimes. Best be off now. Y'all take care what you throw in which places in the future, y'hear?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

There's a well-stocked first-aid kit in the trunk of each vehicle, plus a selection of evidence bags. Carlos retrieves one of each. (Dotan's shredded shirt goes in one of the bags: it's covered in dragon slobber, and Adriana can probably use that.)

Dotan makes some halfhearted attempts to struggle against being patched up, but he's dazed and in shock, not to mention he's a skinny guy and Brad used to wrestle. Fortunately, it doesn't look like any of Hiram's teeth sliced in far enough to hit major organs. His torso's going to be a mess of bruises by evening, but as long as none of the wounds get infected, that'll be the worst of it.

"I'll tell you how this can matter," says Carlos, as he disinfects and bandages the bite marks one by one, using the cleanest parts of his chapel coat to mop up the excess blood. "How you can matter. All right, so none of it is part of a broader divine plan. Well, it never had to be."

He's not sure how much of this is getting through, especially after they got Dotan to swallow one of the extra-strength pain pills. That's all right. Carlos anticipates needing to give the speech again after they break this news to the rest of the team, so he may as well rehearse.

"It matters because it's here. Because it's real. And you know what? Even if this whole thing was a prelude to some fuller, better existence coming up next, it wouldn't make a difference! This is still the world we're in now. Where we are is always the most important place."

It's always been his favorite Lyra Belacqua quote.

Granted, Dr. Belacqua probably didn't say it with the intention of reassuring people that the universe as a whole was more important than any possible manifestation of the afterlife...but still, those words have never felt more relevant to Carlos' life than they do right now.

Chapter Text

Dotan gets sent home. Night Vale General doesn't have great mental health services for normal people; the team doesn't have the resources to be on 24/7 suicide watch; and Carlos' speech wasn't that good.

Technically, it's a medical leave of absence, so Dotan has the option of returning later if he feels better. If he can find a way to get his head back on straight. Personally, Carlos plans on exorcising his own lingering trauma by throwing himself into work...but he lets his remaining six colleagues know that if they feel the need to cope by getting smashingly drunk a couple of times, the petty cash box is open and he's looking the other way.

He even gives the drinking strategy a shot himself (no pun intended). A controlled experiment reveals that it doesn't help with the nightmares at all, just leaves him waking up to nausea and headaches. So much for that idea. Obsessive work it'll have to be.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Hiram McDaniels gets caught by the Sheriff's secret police about a week later, brought in on charges of "insurance fraud, falsifying identification papers, evading arrest, and assaulting a police vehicle with fire." The arrest is reported on the morning news, which Carlos takes in over breakfast in spite of the fact that someone other than Cecil hosts it. (For one thing, it's disconcerting; for another, this announcer keeps breaking down into hoots.)

"I wonder if this is our fault," he says to Isaña over his bowl of Flaky-O's. "We might have led the police right to his hiding spot. He saved one of our lives, and all he gets in return is captured early."

"We have no idea how long it would have taken otherwise," points out Isaña. "But we should definitely send him a gift basket or something."

"Do you think the police would let us get away with it? More importantly, what kind of gift basket do you get an eighteen-foot-tall, five-headed dragon?"

"A big one?" suggests Henriette from the stove, where she's making scrambled eggs.

Carlos nods. "I figured that much."

"Come to think of it...." Henriette moves the pan onto another burner and switches off the heat. "This could be our opportunity to get him to fill out a release form. So we can actually do tests on that saliva you saved for us."

"Do you think the police would let us get away with that?"

"Good question!" says Henriette. "Hang on, I'll ask."

She and her daemon drop everything and head out to the front yard, and the last thing Carlos hears clearly before the door swings shut behind them is, "¡Policía!"

A few minutes and one muffled conversation later, they come back in. Both look fine, if somewhat grim, but Carlos is still boggling. "I can't believe you just did that!"

"Why not? It worked out pretty well for you."

Carlos splays a hand protectively across Isaña's plates. "I got lucky — and I had a bargaining chip!" And they've already done their worst to me. I'm going to have regular nightmares and wake up frantically clinging to my daemon no matter what. You still have a chance of getting out of here without that.

"Well, maybe we got lucky too," says Henriette. "Or maybe not. The officer hiding in our neighbor's bushes said they would be glad to escort me to a secure meeting with Mr. McDaniels...as long as I came alone, and agreed to be unconscious during the trips to and from the secret undisclosed location."

"What's the point? It's the abandoned mine shaft outside of town. Everybody knows that."

Henriette shrugs. "That's what I said. But the officer was very insistent."

"You can't possibly be planning to go," says Carlos.

"Not without confirmation, no," says Henriette. "You don't think it's too early to ring up Cecil, do you?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

For the first time Carlos can remember, his call to Cecil goes to voicemail. He doesn't leave a message. Cecil is excellent at guiding him through dangerous conversational territory, picking up the important details without letting him say anything too subversive; it's probably not a good idea for Carlos Tongue-Tied to try to pull that off all on his own.

Less than a minute later, his phone rings.

"Carlos~! I am so sorry I missed your call," gushes Cecil. "It's been too long! What have you been up to?"

"Um, nothing much. Doing tests, analyzing results, making discoveries...you know, experimental theology." Wow, Carlos could not possibly sound more inane if he tried. "Listen, I'm sorry, I didn't call to catch up...we have a research conundrum that we were hoping you could help us out with."

"Of course, of course! You aren't in a hurry, though, are you? Because I am afraid it will be some time before I can get to the station."

"Ah...." Carlos relates the question in English to Henriette, who shrugs I don't know. "We're not sure. You'd have to ask the secret police."

"All right," says Cecil cheerfully. "Well, officer? Did you put the experimental theologians on a deadline?"

For a second Carlos has the horrible sinking feeling that Cecil is speaking to him from police custody. Then a slightly crackly voice says, "Give me a minute, I'll run it up the line," and Carlos realizes that, oh, Cecil was just addressing the tap on their phone.

"Sooooo...any plans for Día de la Revolución?" adds Cecil while they wait.

Carlos narrowly misses agreeing to accompany Cecil to the town's annual Revolution Day Dead Citizens Impersonation Contest before the officer gets back to them. Apparently, yes, this is a one-day-only offer. "Sorry to have bothered you," says Carlos, scooping Isaña into his lap.

"Carlos, darling Carlos, you never need to apologize for calling me!" exclaims Cecil. "Your sweet caramel voice is a welcome break in the middle of a morning of ugly, unwanted duty. I would be completely free to help your wonderful cause, if not for Steve Carlsberg. Inconsiderate jerk."

"I'm sorry to hear that," says Carlos automatically. "What did...I mean...is it something I could help with?"

"What do you mean?"

"Maybe this is a stupid idea." Carlos sure doesn't seem to have a hard time saying stupid things around Cecil. "But whatever it is you're busy with, is there a way I could cover for you? Take over the rest of it, so you can run down to the station, and then kill the rest of the time however you want?"

"Oh, Carlos, that would be wonderful." Cecil sounds so enraptured that Carlos is a little afraid of what he's getting himself into. "Yes, I'm sure you could handle it! All you have to do is keep an eye on the place until Steve recovers — he went and got himself taken in for re-education, again, and I give it at least four hours until he fully regains consciousness."

A chill runs down Carlos' arms. "Does he need serious medical care? Because I don't know if I'm qualified —"

"All he needs is garden-variety babysitting. And someone to make sure he doesn't overdose on his meds, which is basically just chemistry, right? I'm sure you could handle it perfectly."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Steve's apartment is one of several in a converted house in Old Town. No elevator, so after Cecil buzzes them in, Carlos carries Isaña up to the second floor. Cecil greets them wearing rainbow hi-tops, several chunky wooden bead necklaces, and a blue high-waisted ensemble that Carlos can only describe as "rompers."

"I'm so glad you're here!" he exclaims. "Let me just show you around the place...."

He points out the bathroom, the bloodstone circle room, a room that Carlos is absolutely forbidden to enter, and the kitchen. In the latter he identifies several appliances — "the fridge, the microwave, and here's the blender, let me show you how it works" — and switches that last item on.

A bladed metal contraption trying its darndest to puree air is, it turns out, extremely loud.

Covered by the racket, Cecil swishes over to put his lips right up to Carlos's ear and murmur between cupped hands, "What is it that you wanted me to look up?"

Carlos mimics the pose to explain about Henriette wanting to visit Hiram McDaniels, keeping it quick so their local secret-police observers won't get suspicious about why this blending demonstration is taking so long. Cecil nods a lot, but comes away a bit starry-eyed. Hopefully he wasn't too distracted by Carlos breathing on his ear to absorb the important parts.

"All right!" says Cecil brightly, switching the machine off. "The painkillers are on this nice high shelf. I printed up a list of the dosages and the schedule and stuck it on the fridge." He points to a piece of paper held in place with a Scenic Niton Canyon magnet. It looks easy enough. "Now I'll introduce you to Renée, and then we'll see if Steve can wake up long enough to say hi, or if even the bare minimum of courtesy is beyond him."

Carlos follows him mutely through the TV room, thinking: Renée who?

Cecil knocks on a door decorated with brightly-colored butterfly stickers. "Renée! Come meet Señor Carlos." To Carlos he adds, in a low voice, "Don't bring up the eye thing. She's a little sensitive."

And then Renée comes out to inspect them.

She's a tiny precious eight- or nine-year-old, with brown hair gathered back into a couple of French braids and brown eyes that are exactly like Steve's...aside from the fact that she has four of them. Two in the normal place, two up on her forehead. Her daemon is scampering along at her feet in the form of a striped lizard; he changes into a hummingbird to hover in front of them, inspecting first Carlos's face and then Isaña's, then zips back to Renée's shoulder and goes mouse.

"She's not allowed to have any desserts when her dad's not awake, and she can only watch an hour of TV, nothing rated B or above," says Cecil. "School was canceled today, because of, and I quote, 'prophecy', but she still has homework due tomorrow, don't you, pequeñita? You can ask Carlos for help with that if you need any. He's very smart!"

"Are you Carlos the experimental theologian?" asks Renée, peering up at him.

"That's me," says Carlos. He can handle this, right? He used to watch Azalea when she was this age; a mostly-normal Night Vale kid can't be that much harder to keep out of trouble than his baby sister.

Renée frowns. "My papi says Señor Cecil's wasting his time being in love with you, because you're not interested and anyway you're out of his league."

"Uh," says Carlos.

Cecil just sighs. "You know," he says, switching abruptly and seamlessly to English, "there are a lot of things I could say about Steve's romantic choices. But I will not, because I have entered into a solemn blood pact not to talk about the little bean sprout's other parental unit in front of her."

Carlos doesn't even try to drag himself from one language to another, just says "I will keep that in mind" in Spanish.

"What are you saying?" wails Renée. "That's not fair! Don't talk behind my back in front of me!"

"Important grown-up stuff, kiddo," says Cecil, back in her language. "Go back in your room and and play now, or whatever it is you kids do these days. I need to tell your dad Señor Carlos is here."

Renée nods and disappears into her room again.

"Full disclosure," says Carlos quietly, "I didn't realize Steve had a kid until just now."

"Of course he has a kid," says Cecil. "We can't all go to PTA meetings just for the gossip and Old Woman Josie's muffins. I would almost go so far as to call Steve an excellent father, except for his flagrant abuse of apostrophes in the minutes for said meetings. And don't get me started on his semicolons, ugh. He's in here."

He leads Carlos and Isaña through another door.

Steve's room is dark and fairly sparse, brown and beige décor, the shades drawn and all the lights off. There are cardboard boxes stuffed with papers in every spare corner; Carlos nearly trips over one of them. Cecil weaves effortlessly over to the bed, with Steve asleep (or passed-out) on one side and a badger-sized lump under the covers beside him.

Carlos hugs Isaña a little closer.

"Wake up, you lazy jerk," says Cecil, punching Steve in the shoulder. "Thirty seconds of consciousness, c'mon, I'm sure even you can manage that."

"Good luck," replies a deep voice from the bed.

It's not a badger-sized lump under the sheets. It's a badger-and-margay-sized lump. Khoshekh is curled up with Taeminlahn, and probably has been this whole time.

"No, he's definitely mostly here," says Cecil. "Might not be verbal yet, wouldn't that be just like him, making things unnecessarily difficult, but we can get him up. Use your teeth."

The covers shift, and Khoshekh chomps down on a mouthful of badger. Steve wakes with an incoherent cry.

"It's me! It's only me," intones Cecil, holding him down by the shoulders and speaking in a slow, clear voice. "You're at home. Everything is all right. I have to go, but Carlos is going to be here, okay? Carlos Perfecto, you know him."

"Would it help if we turned on the light?" says Carlos faintly. Cecil's eyes might not be affected by the low light, but normal vision sure is.

"Oh! Yes, it probably would. Go ahead."

The switch is on the wall next to Carlos; he hits it with his elbow, and lamps come on all around the room. Steve looks blearily in his direction. There are bags under his eyes, and several medium-size bandages covering spots on his forehead and neck.

"There you go! Carlos is watching Renée, and he's going to be here when you wake up, understand? Nod for yes."

Slowly, Steve nods.

"Finally! Good grief, I could not have dumbed that down more if I tried." Cecil sits back and rearranges the covers, smoothing them back up over Steve's shoulders. "Go back to sleep now. You're obviously going to be good for even less than usual for a while."

Steve grumbles something incoherent, and tries, with sluggish movements, to bat Cecil's hands away. Cecil lets out a theatrical groan as he gets up. "All right, hit the light again."

Carlos does, and backs out of the room, feeling horribly out-of-place. He never should have volunteered for this. Steve and Taeminlahn deserve to have Cecil and Khoshekh with them right now, not to be left with virtual strangers. "Maybe it's better if I...."

"Sensitive, caring Carlos," interrupts Cecil. "It is highly likely that Steve will sleep past when I would have had to leave for work anyway. Khoshekh can't watch Renée all on his own, the faceless old woman would let her eat ice cream all afternoon, and while I could bring her to the station, it's hardly an ideal place to have a small child running around — as Steve had the nerve to lecture me the last time he was unconscious at that hour. So it is really very fortunate for everyone that you are here."

"Ah," says Carlos. He's not sure who "the faceless old woman" is (maybe a neighbor?), but lets it slide. "That's...I'm glad to hear it."

"Speaking of Khoshekh...." Cecil's holding the door slightly open. "We have to drive back to the station, so come here, you."

And behind him, his daemon comes trotting out of Steve's room.

True to Wikipedia's description, Khoshekh has the lanky proportions and rosetted coat of an ocelot, though he's only about as large as a mid-size dog. Big eyes and bigger ears make his head look strikingly kittenish, and big paws —

Carlos does a double-take as he sinks into a crouch to put his own daemon down. Only one front paw, that's a shock — he's never heard of a daemon settling with missing limbs, and to be injured that badly, it must have —

— no, hang on, he counts four paws —

— but —

what?

Khoshekh winds around Cecil's legs a couple of times, rubbing his face affectionately against Cecil's rainbow hi-tops, before turning his attention to Carlos and Isaña. He purrs, maybe a little smugly, as if he's amused by the way Carlos is staring, but how can Carlos not? Four legs. Normally formed. Perfect bilateral symmetry. One in front, two in the middle, and one in back.

Isaña trots up to him, small in comparison. Of course you can't take a daemon's species as a complete map of personality, but Carlos can't help being struck by the fact that Cecil's is a predator, right at the top of its local food chain, and his own is (agile, well-defended, but still) prey.

Not that she's scared. "Hi there," she says, face tipped up in the air.

"Hello again," says Khoshekh, touching noses with her.

"Can I look at your spine?" blurts Isaña.

"But of course," purrs Khoshekh — and then rubs his face against her shell too, once on each side.

Friendly.

Possessive.

Ba-thump goes Carlos' heart.

Neither Cecil nor his daemon seem to notice; the margay flops down on his side, housecat-style, and Cecil sits beside him to watch. Isaña kneads her claws against Khoshekh's shoulders (shoulder?) and on down his back. "This is...amazing," she reports. "You really do have middle legs! With...I think these are most analogous to hip bones, but it's hard to tell without an X-ray. How is this possible?"

Khoshekh twists his head (his spine looks about as flexible as a normal cat's, which is to say, extremely) to look at Cecil. "Not very well-traveled, are they?"

"Well, you know, not everyone can be," says Cecil reasonably. "Not a lot of animals in New Denmark have body types like this, but in Antillia it's quite common. All the animals in Brazil are like this. I was a late settler, so while I was there Khoshekh tried out a couple of different local forms, and the first time he went margay I think we both knew that was it."

Brazil. Cecil's made-up country, not on any maps, where he got the trepanning done. He must have been much younger than Carlos assumed; every daemon settles at its own pace, but any later than fifteen is almost unheard-of. Cecil's skull probably hadn't even finished growing.

"Brazil," echoes Isaña, also remembering. "Where all the animals float?"

"Exactly!" says Cecil.

And Khoshekh, by way of demonstration, rolls back over and hops into the air.

Carlos watches, breathless. Khoshekh soars through the atmosphere to curl around behind Cecil's head, the motion of his paws somewhere between walking and swimming, though of course the atmosphere shouldn't be dense enough to support either. It can't be some kind of trick with wires; Isaña would have noticed them. He's just...airborne.

The margay's face pops up on one side of Cecil's head, tail still flicking back and forth against the other. His front paw is hooked cutely over Cecil's shoulder, at least until he does a full-body roll that sends S-curves rippling down his spine, and ends up on his back with his head pillowed on Cecil's shoulder and all four paws in the air.

"Show-off," says Cecil fondly, scratching behind his ears. "All right, roll back over. I want to see Carlos in color before we go, and I want it to be right-side-up!"

After everything that's happened in the past five minutes, watching the two of them go into four-eye is downright anticlimactic. Cecil puts a hand over his eyes and forehead, and takes a deep, steadying breath; Khoshekh settles out of the air to drape over him like a heavy fur stole, eyes briefly drifting out of focus.

Then the daemon's big blue eyes turn to Carlos, and Cecil, face still covered, lets out a dreamy sigh. "Your hues are even more beautiful than I expected."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Señor Carlos? I want a snack."

Carlos, who had been on the couch with his tablet trying to get some data crunched, puts it aside. "Sure, Renée. What do you want?"

"Sugar Frosted Flaky-O's," says little Renée promptly.

Does a cereal with Sugar Frosted in the name count as 'dessert'? Possibly, but Carlos decides it's worth the risk. "Sure, we can do that."

He follows her into the kitchen, even though she doesn't seem to need a lot of help. The cereal is out of her reach, but her daemon lands on the shelf and turns into a white-whiskered emperor tamarin to hand it down to her. While he does the same with the milk, Renée adds, "Señor Carlos, what's a ten?"

"You mean like the number? Or a score? Or...."

"Dunno," says the kid. "Papi didn't say what it meant. He just said you were a ten. And Señor Cecil is a three if he's lucky. Does that mean you're not lucky, because you're not a three?"

"Um," says Carlos. Hopefully Steve was just saying that to give Cecil a hard time, not because he has any personal interest in Carlos' looks. Cecil would probably have multiple heart attacks if Steve Carlsberg ever flirted with his beloved Carlos. "It's a kind of slang...a ten means someone who's attractive, but also smart, and a good person, and...was that cereal box moving before?"

"Nope." Undaunted, Renée starts opening the box of Flaky-O's...

...and pours a long, green, undulating snake into her bowl with a thump.

Renée's daemon shrieks, bird-formed, and flaps frantically backwards. "Get back!" yells Carlos — Renée flees the room — the snake hisses after her, then turns toward Carlos. It's a palm viper, the same genus as Dotan's daemon, venomous and non-sentient and angry.

Carlos grabs Isaña up off the floor and transfers her to the counter, never taking his eyes off the snake on the tabletop. "Tell me if you see any steak knives," he directs. "Or anything else useful."

This would be so much faster if they, too, could sink into the four-eye trance. But Carlos has never managed to pull it off even in perfect calm and stillness. Faced with a terrifying, loathsome viper that looks eager to strike, they don't have a chance.

"Blender," reports Isaña from down the countertop. "It's heavy. You could use it like a club? I'm pulling the cord out."

Carlos inches along in front of the cabinets and the sink to get to her. He still doesn't look away from the snake, which suddenly flings itself down onto one of the folding chairs, then onto the tiled floor. Bracing his hands on the edge of the lucite, Carlos hefts himself up backwards onto the counter just in time to keep its strike from hitting his feet.

"Okay, we could drop the blender on its head," he says, thinking out loud. "Is it heavy enough for that? Should we skip to the microwave? Would be nice if we could avoid demolishing Steve's microwave, though —"

— and BANG the snake is in two pieces, its middle an ichorous smear across the tile.

"Did it get you, Señor Carlos?" calls Renée.

The kid is standing in the kitchen doorway, all four eyes trained on the snake's body, holding a small but clearly genuine Smith & Wesson semi-automatic. Her daemon, at her feet, is bristling in the form of a large mongoose.

"No, I'm okay," says Carlos shakily. "Where did you get that gun, kiddo?"

"At school," says Renée. "I have the third best aim in my class. It would be second best, except Misty Craton coughed in the middle of the test so I would get a worse score than her, and if she says she didn't do it on purpose she's a liar."

"They just...hand out guns? At your school?"

"Papi says the curriculum should focus more on math and reading skills, and less on pro-fish-un-see with deadly weapons." The girl rolls her eyes, like she can't even deal with how slow dads are sometimes. "What does he think I'm s'posed to defend myself with? Fractions?"

"Very logical," says Carlos. Mostly because he doesn't want to frustrate the gun-wielding nine-year-old. "How about if you put it away now, though, okay? The snake is..." He checks. You don't want to make too many assumptions, in Night Vale. "...dead, and you don't want to hurt anyone by accident."

"Guns don't kill people," scoffs Renée. "The NRA man at the assembly said so. We're all invincible to bullets, and it's a miracle. And what if there are more snakes, huh?"

Carlos sighs. "Good point. Let's check."

As it turns out, two of the remaining three cereal boxes in the cupboard are moving in suspicious ways. Renée wants to shoot them both. (The muzzle stays pointed at the ground while she's talking about it, though, and her fingers are well away from the trigger. At least the school firearms classes teach trigger discipline.) Carlos manages to talk her into letting him pull them out with salad tongs and toss them in the oven. Cooked snake is probably no harder to clean than shot snake, and won't leave bullet holes in Steve's floor.

Then he says, "You have a radio, right? Where is it?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"As it turns out, all wheat and wheat by-products, for unknown reasons, have turned into venomous snakes," says Cecil over the radio, "which are crawling all over our small town, causing even more chaos than is normal."

"That explains the cereal," says Carlos. In a loose sense of the word explains. Holding Isaña close, he adds to Renée, "You probably also have bread somewhere in there, crackers, pasta, rolls...I'll go check the cupboards again."

Renée wrinkles her nose. "Wheat is gluten, right?"

"Um, sort of. Gluten is a protein you get in wheat products. Why?"

"Papi can't eat gluten. So we don't have it in any of our food, except my cereal. And my frozen waffles." She perks up. "Are the waffles snakes now too? Can I shoot them?"

"There is absolutely no need to shoot the waffles," says Carlos. (With a straight face, too.) "I'll take care of it. You put that gun back where it belongs. And then, you still need to eat, right?"

"Uh-huh. Can I have ice cream?"

"No. No dessert until your dad says it's okay."

"But I saved your life!" cries Renée. "I bet Señor Cecil would let me have ice cream for saving your life!"

"He probably would," agrees Carlos. "But I'm not Señor Cecil. How do you feel about yogurt?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Eventually they get Renée set up in front of the TV with a sandwich (turkey and Swiss on potato bread), where she and her daemon get absorbed in some low-budget kids' puppet show. Carlos responds to an emergency check-in from the rest of the team, then does his best to clean up the dead snake on the floor, keeping the radio on in the background.

Moving on from the wheat fiasco, Cecil reports on the arrest of long-time fugitive Hiram McDaniels...and evidently Khoshekh is in the studio with him, because an intern hands him a photo, and the next thing you know he's gushing about how McDaniels is "dynamic-looking" with his "five intense faces" and "piercing blue and red and black and green and yellow eyes."

"Oh, come on," says Carlos out loud, wringing out his sponge into the bucket of suds. "He's not that cool-looking."

"He's a dragon," points out Isaña.

"I know! I mean, for a dragon. Not that I've ever seen any other dragons...but it's very likely that he's totally average."

"Would it be a problem if he wasn't?"

"No! Of course not! I'm just saying."

It's a relief when Cecil changes the subject. Apparently the wheat and its by-products are now malevolent supernatural forces (the living ones, anyway; the dead snakes remain dead snakes), and Cecil thinks Carlos's shirt fit him very well today (hah!). The angels are back at Josie's; Cecil relates a report that they are chanting about the bowling alley, and, in the process, blocking Josie's television. The town is officially in a state of emergency.

Hiram McDaniels has a blog. Cecil starts reading his favorite posts. He calls McDaniels "roguish" and "smart."

A few minutes later, the snakes that were formerly wheat by-products vanish, leaving no mess at all except the bullet hole in the floor and a pile of cardboard ash in the oven. Carlos decides to deal with it later, switches off the radio with extreme prejudice, and goes to join Renée. No matter how low-budget Candle Cove is, it has to be better than sitting around waiting for Cecil to re-dub McDaniels Hiram Vigoroso.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Halfway through the puppet pirates' adventures on the Island of the Banana People (which are literally bananas with googly eyes stuck on them, because the show is just that bad), Carlos hears the kind of ka-click that should have been coming from the TV, and a shaky voice snaps, "Back away from my daughter."

Great. The elder Carlsberg is armed too. And he's pointing it at Carlos.

"Pa-pi!" cries Renée. "You're interrupting my show!"

"Hit pause, okay?" says Carlos, and holds up his hands. "I'm standing up slowly now. It's just me, Steve. It's Carlos. Cecil told you I would be here. Remember?"

He tries to match the measured, careful tones Cecil used earlier, hoping Steve's memory will recover along with his language skills. In Night Vale it's even more justified than usual to be suspicious of a stranger in your home. On top of which, it's a painful reality that Carlos's much-lauded appearance probably isn't doing him any favors; just because Steve's most trusted friend is a brown guy doesn't mean there aren't any ugly stereotypes lodged in his hindbrain, ready to skew his judgment when he's too disoriented to think better of it.

"Señor Carlos distracted a snake so I could shoot it," volunteers Renée. "But there were like three good weapons in ten feet and he didn't use any of them. Señor Cecil said he was smart, but I bet if he was taking our Improvised Weapons test, he would come in last."

Carlos is pretty sure her chatter is going right through Steve's head at this point. "It's been a long day," he summarizes.

Steve's brow furrows. He's still sighting down the barrel of a rifle, though, which isn't promising.

"Khoshekh bit you to wake you up," adds Isaña to Taeminlahn. "Do you remember that, at least?"

The badger daemon twitches a little, then flexes her shoulder. "This does feel like a Khoshekh bite."

"Carlos," says Steve slowly.

"Carlos Ramirez," confirms Carlos. "Although, um, Cecil introduced me as Perfecto, if that helps."

The gun barrel sinks toward the carpet. "Carlos Perfecto," echoes Steve. "Didn't recognize you without the chapel coat."

Dry wit is probably a sign of progress. Still, just in case he's not kidding, Carlos is never going anywhere in Night Vale without a chapel coat again. "Cecil also said there was some stuff you take for, uh —" He glances at Renée, who's sitting with her arms crossed, glaring balefully at the paused screen. "Some stuff you take. Let's go get that, okay?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Renée eventually trails into the kitchen after them, asking if she can have ice cream yet. Her daemon turns into the cutest big-eyed kitten Carlos has ever seen and cuddles up next to her father's. By this point Steve is lucid enough to ask whether she's finished her homework yet, and, when it turns out she hasn't even started, to shoo her away to take care of it.

"She's a good kid," says Carlos. He's holding Isaña and leaning against the counter, while Steve sits heavily in one of the chairs. "She, ah, very likely saved my life today. I don't know if you give out extra desserts for things like that, but I figured you should know, just in case."

"She's a great kid," sighs Steve. "Sorry about taking up your whole morning. Do I even want to know how Cecil roped you into this?"

"It was no trouble. We traded favors. And I brought work — in fact, there's plenty more to do, if you want me to stay around a while longer."

Steve takes another gulp of his drink, the one with the painkillers and some other unlabeled medication stirred in. "Anything I need help with at this point, the faceless old woman can probably take care of. But thanks for the offer."

That's the same woman Cecil mentioned. "Is she a neighbor of yours?"

"Sort of. She lives in your home."

Carlos frowns. "When you say 'your' home —"

A loud, screechy noise cuts him off, and he whips around, every muscle tensed, trying to find the source. It sounds like a demented buzzard. It sounds like it's outside, but close.

"That'll be the sunset," says Steve matter-of-factly.

"Oh," says Carlos, relaxing. "Silly me, I should have realized."

Another parched, angry shriek. It's still early afternoon, several hours early for sunset, which is even more off than usual.

"They weren't always like this," explains Steve. "It started last week. And it's only in Old Town, as far as we can tell. We're trying to pull together a community group to write some letters." He gingerly touches one of the bandages on his neck. "I wanted to make a more, let's say, forceful complaint...but I'm about eighty percent sure that's what they took me in for this time."

Isaña gives Carlos a meaningful poke in the arm. "I could bring my team up to take a look," he offers. "I don't —" He breaks off, waits for the next round of screeching to finish. "I don't know if experimental theology can do anything about it, but it's worth a shot."

"Would you? That would be great."

Carlos shrugs. "Trying to understand problems so we can solve them is just part of being an experimental theologian."

He gathers his stuff: tablet, bus pass, and his keys, phone, and wallet are still in his bag. Without being able to carry notebooks or pens, it still feels much lighter than it used to. Maybe this is one of the habits he'll try to keep, after Night Vale.

Speaking of which..."Maybe this is a stupid question," says Carlos as Steve shows him out, "but have you ever thought about, ah...moving?"

Steve frowns at him. "Do you think that would fix the Old Town sunsets?"

"Well...probably not."

"Then I'm not sure I see the point," says Steve. "Besides, where else would we go? Desert Bluffs? Please. Don't tell Cecil I said this, because he has a chronic case of no-manners about that place and the last thing I want to do is encourage him, but Desert Bluffs is awful."

Chapter Text

Not everyone in town was lucky enough to escape the onslaught of wheat and its by-products unscathed, which is why Jordan spends three days at Night Vale General in critical condition, and five more in recovery. When Carlos and Isaña come to visit halfway through, they aren't surprised to be greeted with, "I quit."

Jordan and Gerald were in the chapel during the incident, working on their own projects, and safely isolated from anything snake-related. The malevolent supernatural forces were a different story. And with Big Rico's right next door, there was no shortage of pizza-dough-based violent spirit-entities ready to come drifting over.

"You'll tell Harvard it's snakebite-related, right?" adds Jordan, stroking the fur of the tufted-deer daemon, careful to avoid the neck brace. (According to Gerald, they both got tossed around pretty wildly.) "I don't think 'possession' will go over well."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"It's the weirdest thing I've ever seen."

"Don't say that!" exclaims Brad, possibly in all seriousness. "You'll jinx us."

The experimental theologians (minus the still-hospitalized Jordan) are all in the ordinater room, crowded around Henriette's machine. "Okay, not the weirdest," she amends, still looking at the slideshow of what are apparently Hiram McDaniels' skin cells. (He ended up offering her a lot of samples.) "It's just an average, garden-variety weird thing."

"Keep in mind, the man is a dragon from another world," points out Gerald. His musk-ox daemon, on the other side of the ordinater table, nods in agreement. "Why, for all we know, this might be his normal."

"It might," says Adriana. "Except that it looks a lot like what we're seeing with the tarantulas. The ones who have volunteered to work with me, anyway. And they're not from Hiram's world. I think it's a side effect of being here — in a world other than their own, I mean."

"It looks unhealthy," adds Henriette. "It's like their DNA is being...washed out."

Carlos isn't a geneticist, but that doesn't sound like a technical term. "You're forwarding this to some biologists, right? Some geneticists? I have a couple of contacts with otherworldly interest, if you need suggestions."

"We're on it," Henriette assures him. "But what we could really use is some biologists or geneticists to come out here."

"That can happen." It's too late to start taking applications for next semester, but Carlos can definitely get more people out here by summer. "We're overdue to open up recruiting, and we're about to lose Jordan, too."

Gasps all around. Fleur's hand flies to her mouth. Brad's hamster daemon ducks into his pocket with a squeak.

"I didn't mean — sorry! — Jordan's not terminal," clarifies Carlos, and his colleagues breathe sighs of relief. "Just going back to the US. On the already-booked flight for Christmas break, so Jordan should have plenty of time to walk us through the various software programs we've all been counting on Jordan to manage, and hopefully between us we can soak in enough to keep up."

"Jordan's already been trying to teach me the mapping program for a while now," says Gerald slowly. "Since...well, since Dotan, come to think of it. You think Jordan was planning to leave already?"

Carlos can believe it. Hearing this life is all you get, so make it count has a way of shaking up your priorities. If this team hadn't been carefully selected for being very into experimental theology, he's sure half of them would be on a beach in Florida by now.

"Jordan does have pronouns, you know," puts in Adriana.

"Really?" says Carlos with interest. "What are they?"

"Um." Adriana deflates a little, her iguana daemon ducking his head. "I don't actually know how to pronounce them."

"We could put that on our application," says Henriette. "Genetics or biology skills a must, tech skills preferred, must have pronounceable pronouns."

Of course Carlos wouldn't — his branch of academia has a reputation for being as accepting as possible towards whoever it would irritate the Magisterium most to accept, and he wants to keep that up — but he gets a smile out of it anyway.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

With the team about to drop to six people, they're all getting stretched thin. It takes all hands on deck to get the full-town readings every other day. None of them need help with the Rusakov measuring apparatus by now, and even Brad and Fleur could probably get by alone between their shaky Spanish and the town goodwill they've managed to build up, but the buddy system has served them well so far and Carlos isn't about to abandon it now.

Instead, they end up with teams where one person takes the readings and the other holes up in the back seat with a tablet, trying to keep up with the other projects they're working on.

Carlos sends the control team a status report that for once isn't hiding anything; there's genuinely no news, just a mundane procession of readings and photograms and spider DNA. Maybe his writing sounded stressed anyway, because his counterpart phones him that afternoon, while he's hunched in the back of the hybrid trying to make some sense out of the readings from Old Town.

"Hey, Ramirez!" Carlo Raimondi's mood sounds much better than it did the last time they talked. "Am I interrupting anything? If you need to get back to work, I'll call later."

"Nothing but the usual." Carlos rests the tablet on the seat beside him, so Isaña can at least keep looking at the numbers while he talks. "Everything going well in Desert Bluffs?"

"Oh, absolutely fantastic! It sounded like you were having a bit of a morale problem over in Night Vale, so I thought I'd call and surprise you with some good news."

"Go on."

"Well, first of all, we followed your lead and reached out to the guy on the local radio. Pleasant fellow, couldn't be friendlier, seems to know everyone in town. Maybe a little light in the loafers, but hey, as long as he keeps his hands to himself, who am I to judge, eh?"

All right, so Carlos's peers aren't all as welcoming as the Magisterium is rigid. "As long as you're being polite to him, too."

"I'm being an absolute saint, don't you worry. Anyway, turns out the company who runs the station has its hands in a bunch of other pies, including particle engineering. Long story short...how would you like a set of fully automatic, satellite-enabled Rusakov detectors?"

Carlos sits up straight. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, a bunch of little set-'em-and-forget-'em boxes that will beam the local concentration straight back to the server of your choice," says Raimondi proudly. "Plant them all around town, set 'em to take the readings once a day, or once an hour, or, hell, once a second if you feel like it. We tried that for a couple of days, haven't broken ours yet."

"Those sound perfect," breathes Carlos. Especially since almost all of them are going home for a week or so around Christmas, and he'd been resigned to giving up a week of data. "Why haven't I heard of them before?"

"They're not on the market yet. We got a dozen prototypes for free when we offered to stress-test them. I mentioned that your studies would be a great way to find out how accurate they are at high ranges, and they said if you're interested, they'd be happy to send you a crate."

Carlos can't say yes fast enough. "I don't know how to thank you."

"Consider it an early Christmas present," says Raimondi. "Or, if you like, one more reason to believe in a smiling God."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

There's a night when, instead of a confused mishmash of Lyra-and-Pan adventures or one of his by-now standard nightmares, Carlos dreams of nothing but a dark planet lit by no sun.

He reaches for it, and keeps reaching, and wakes up without ever getting to touch it. Later that morning, an offhand mention from Gerald leads to the revelation that everyone on the team had the same dream. It's going to be a day of vague discontent for everyone, apparently.

The sky is brownish-gold by afternoon, and on the air Cecil makes an offhand mention that it's the same color as Isaña's beautiful, perfect shell. It makes Carlos, at least, start to feel better. Any confused feelings he may have toward Cecil aside, he does like to hear about himself on the radio.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Speaking of which....

"We can do this," says Isaña firmly. She's perched on the windowsill of Carlos's bedroom, where Carlos has been sitting unmoving for at least a full minute now. "Brave like Lyra."

"I don't think this calls for Lyra-scale bravery," says Carlos, though he splays one hand protectively over her shell anyway.

Isaña butts her head against his thigh, unimpressed. "Then just do it."

"All right, all right, I am." Carlos thumbs through the options on his phone screen. The call rings twice, then a familiar voice greets him. "Hey, Cecil?"

"Carlos~!" exclaims Cecil. "What crisis has your team gotten itself into this time? What question do you urgently need answered?"

"Actually...." Carlos swallows. "I'm calling for...sort of...personal reasons."

"Ohhhh?"

"You see, I'm going to visit my family for the holidays, so I thought I'd ask my Night Vale friends if there's anything they want me to pick up while I'm there. Maybe something that's expensive to ship internationally...or just a souvenir. Anything like that."

Old Woman Josie, even though she's a witch and witches need for nothing but the open sky, requested a couple of DVD box sets. (She promised to pay him back, explaining that it was enough of a gift to save her the shipping fees.) Renée Carlsberg, via her father, requested exotic foreign candy; Carlos offered to bring back enough to share with her whole class, provided that Steve made sure it actually got to her class.

And Cecil...he says "Gosh!" and "I don't know, this is so sudden, I've never even thought about it," and, voice squeaking, "Can I get back to you?"

"Sure, no problem." Carlos gives him the date of the flight. Not that Cecil couldn't contact him after he gets back to the US, but between Night Vale and the rest of the world there's a remarkable problem with poor connections and dropped calls.

"I'll talk to Khoshekh and let you know!" says Cecil, a little breathless. "So we — we're friends, huh?"

Carlos still isn't confident that Cecil isn't playing him somehow. No matter how much experience he's gotten with subtlety and double-talk in the past seven months, he knows he'd still be easy to manipulate if someone really wanted to. But if Cecil is genuine, he's more than won Carlos's friendship by this point. And if not...this is probably the safest distance to keep him at.

So Carlos grins, because Mamá always told him people can hear it in your voice when you smile, and says, "Well, yeah. Of course we're friends."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

In spite of Jordan's plan to leave town for good after this week, the technician is as intrigued as any of them by these super-efficient Rusakov-measuring boxes. Raimondi has promised to personally drive the shipment over to their chapel, presumably to get all their thanks showered on him in person, and they're all staying in late waiting for him to show up.

A horn beeps twice out front, and everyone jumps.

"That's probably him," says Carlos. "And obviously no one's getting any work done in here, so let's go."

The vehicle in their front drive is a sleek black hatchback that Carlos doesn't remember the control team having. His colleagues hang back on the chapel steps, just in case it's an envoy of the Sheriff's secret police, or something. But no, that's definitely Raimondi's profile Carlos catches through the windows as he jogs over, Raimondi and his hyena daemon stepping out....

Carlos skids to a stop, heels digging pits in the grass.

"Good to see you, Ramirez," says Raimondi cheerily. "The crate's in the back. I'm going to need a little help hauling it in, unless you want to...what's wrong? Is there something on my face?"

"What happened to you?" blurts Carlos.

Because his counterpart is a mess. There are several long ugly gashes down the side of his head, and at least one more set on his forearm, unbandaged and poorly scabbed-over. His clothes are spattered with blood. There's blood in his hair. He looks like a refugee from a zombi movie. Or like one of the zombis.

"Did someone try to keep you from coming here?"

"What? Of course not! Like I said, all the locals have been very friendly." Raimondi follows Carlos's stare to his arm, blinking in mild surprise at the ruddy stains on his sleeve. "Although I admit, some of them have pretty firm handshakes."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They get the confused-but-compliant Raimondi and his daemon inside, get him out of his ruined clothes (he and Carlos are about the same size, so Carlos can lend him a set), and use the chemical shower to get the first layer of blood washed away. His cuts might already be infected, but it can't hurt to scrub off their grimy, cracking coatings and bandage them properly, just in case. Carlos wears sterile gloves and uses boiling water and apologizes a lot for how much it has to sting; Raimondi doesn't seem to feel it.

In fairness, Carlos can imagine some of these injuries being the result of a friendly handshake from a Hiram McDaniels. But the rest...? He would be certain that Raimondi is covering for someone, maybe trying not to get in further trouble with the secret police, except that it's like Raimondi genuinely doesn't realize he has serious injuries at all.

Can you re-educate someone out of getting input from their pain receptors?

The task uses almost two first-aid kits' worth of gauze. None of the Night Vale team members have daemons with particularly agile paws (it would really help to have Ichiro's capuchin back around now), so Raimondi has to be guided into cleaning and dressing the gashes on his daemon's neck and shoulders himself.

"And now," says Carlos firmly, "you two are going to sit down for a while."

"All right, all right, if you insist," sighs his counterpart. "Can I at least walk you through the device settings while I'm resting? Inefficient use of time takes away a lot of business productivity."

It's a compromise Carlos can live with.

Raimondi doesn't seem to be suffering from the blood loss, but they get him a protein shake and some of Henriette's iron supplements anyway, and wrap him in a couple of army surplus blankets (purchased along with pillows and cots a while back, in case another sandstorm or swarm of locusts stranded anyone in the chapel overnight). The other daemons take it in pairs to nuzzle up around his hyena, showing concern and support in a way that would be too awkwardly physical for their humans.

With all the fuss, it's a relief that the new Rusakov meters are remarkably easy to use. Everybody takes one to try: handheld yellow boxes about the size of a Rutherford counter, running on triple-A batteries and a secure satellite connection. Once started up, their screens display identical readouts, which are corroborated by the old, expensive, bulky devices they've been using this whole time.

Five minutes of configuration later, Carlos's laptop is quietly downloading a steady stream of data from his meter. He even manages to get their ordinary software to load and display a graph of the minute-by-minute readings, without having to ask Jordan for help.

"This is incredible," says Fleur. "This is going to save us so much time."

"What are we even going to do with ourselves?" adds Gerald.

Henriette, who knows better, grins. "You want a list? Because I've been making a list."

Carlos runs his thumb over the sunshiney logo stamped on one corner of the device. They all have wishlists for their research, adding new items every week. And it looks like StrexCorp is going to help them get some fulfillment.

If some unknown force is fighting to slow down their experimental progress, so be it. They'll just have to watch each other's backs more closely than ever.

Raimondi swears he's okay to drive, and has to get back to work anyway. He didn't bring any buddies to watch his back, so Carlos and Gerald get in the pickup and escort his car to the city limits. After that it's just a few minutes through the unincorporated sand wastes until he gets to Desert Bluffs, where he'll be safe.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Run!" shouts an intern, shoving Carlos down the hall: away from the thrashing and snarling and pulses of violet light that have started to emanate from Station Management's door. "I'll do the calming chants. Just go!"

Carlos doesn't stop to ask questions, just tears off down the corridor, paperwork and Rusakov meter clutched in his hands and Isaña darting along at his side. A mix of rhythmic keening and eldritch screeching echoes against the walls behind him; the fluorescents in the ceiling sputter and flash. Just a typical afternoon at Night Vale Community Radio.

He stops in front of Cecil's office and knocks on the door. "Can we duck in here for a second?" he asks, when Cecil opens it. "I think I made your bosses mad, and — oh, sorry! I didn't realize you had company."

The man sitting in front of Cecil's desk is someone Carlos has seen around town, maybe at the Raúl's or during a PTA meeting, but never spoken to. Shorter and with more wiry muscle than Cecil, of East Asian (maybe Corean?) descent, sharp cheekbones, freckles. Both he and his daemon, a thickly-furred silver beaver, look unhappy with the interruption.

"No, come in, come in!" says Cecil, dragging him inside. "Can't leave you outside with Management in a state. Have you met Earl?"

The visitor, Earl, gets to his feet. "We should be going anyway," he says. "Camping trips don't plan themselves."

"Of course," says Cecil. "You remember the safe secret passage out, right?"

"As if I'd forget."

Carlos and Isaña stand awkwardly off to one side. Cecil shows Earl out, then shuts the door and turns three separate locks. "Gosh, it sure has gotten loud out there. What on earth did you do to provoke Station Management?"

"Asked if we could install one of these in the building." Carlos holds up the pocket-sized Rusakov meter. "A City Council messenger child came by earlier to say we have approval to place them on public property, but we still need to deal individually with private businesses. I tried to explain to your bosses that the data collection wouldn't be invasive...I don't think they believed me."

"The whims of Station Management are rarely easy for mortal minds to comprehend," says Cecil with a shrug.

"Uh-huh. Anyway, I don't want to get in your way! Feel free to get back to work if you need to."

"Thoughtful Carlos! I'm afraid I must, yes."

He retreats to his desk, while Carlos takes a seat in the corner and tries to reassess. Putting a meter at the station itself would be ideal, but there are plenty of local businesses on the same block, and the data will still be valuable as long as it's consistent. He'll make a checklist, see if any of the owners have been friendly with the experimental theologians...or could he just ask Cecil what their best prospects are? Would that be too much of an imposition?

"Oh!" exclaims Cecil. "I almost forgot. I think I know what I want from the US!"

Carlos sits up straighter. "Go ahead."

"Well, the university you work for is Harvard, right?"

"That's right."

"Do they have merchandise?"

Carlos almost laughs. Harvard is the kind of school where people who've never so much as applied will buy and wear the sweatshirts in hopes of being mistaken for a graduate. They have obscene amounts of merchandise. And here's Cecil, barely aware that the place exists, only interested at all because it's associated with Carlos. "They have plenty. What kind did you want?"

"Oh, anything," says Cecil. "Pick whatever you think is good!"

A piercing shriek echoes down the hall, followed by a wet splat. Isaña rolls up into a tight ball next to Carlos' foot.

Cecil frowns at the locked door, then turns to his ordinater. "I suppose I'd better carve out some time tonight for an epitaph for Intern Karim."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The day before his flight, Carlos does some last-minute local shopping.

The handicrafts store across from the Arby's provides a traditional rabbit-fur blanket (ears and all), which Papi will get a kick out of. For Mamá, a CD of local music from Dark Owl Records. And for the kids, he and Isaña stroll around the Raúl's for a bit, picking up various Hispania Nova pastries and candy bars that you can't get in the US.

"You think this is enough sugar?" he asks, picking up a bag of chocolatl-chili lollipops for consideration.

"We should be more worried about giving them too much, if we plan on sleeping at all during this break," points out his daemon, down by his feet.

"We're going to end up on the floor," Carlos reminds her. "Sleeping is probably a lost cause already."

His parents' house is going to be a zoo. Azalea can't make it, she has to work right up to Christmas Eve, but aside from his baby sister the whole family will be there. That means Lena, Mike, their spouses, five (no, wait, it'll be six by now) grandkids, and all their daemons — not just small daemons, either — Mike's wife has an okapi or something, and Lena's oldest two must have settled by now, right? Are either of them oversize? Carlos can't remember.

He did try to offer to get a room nearby. But Mamá and Papi insisted that their firstborn son is not staying in a hotel.

"If we plan on letting their parents sleep at all, then," says Isaña. "Someone has to be stable enough to manage them."

"Fair point." Carlos puts back the lollipops and heads for the exit.

He tried to pick a low-traffic time for shopping, and this is where it backfires: there's only one checkout line open...with the Apache Tracker at the end of it. Carlos picks up Isaña — her claws are awfully clacky on the tiled floor — and tries to be unobtrusive as he slips into line, canvas bag slung over his other arm.

To his dismay, the Tracker immediately turns and makes eye contact. "Безрассудно ты поступил теперь," he says solemnly.

"Uh-huh," says Carlos, avoiding his gaze.

"За то отныне будут у тебя войны."

"I don't speak Muscovite, sorry." Also, Carlos would rather not talk to the Tracker at all. He isn't sure when the man got race-swapped from peninsular to Skraeling, but the twin headdresses on the Tracker and his wolf daemon are still awful cartoonish caricatures, so it's still embarrassing just being near him.

The grey wolf speaks up next (and by the way, seriously? Carlos knows you can't force your daemon to settle as something it isn't, but back when the Tracker spoke English he used to cite her form as proof of his "Skraeling soul," which is also not how it works). Of course, she only speaks Muscovy now too: "Ад преисподний пришел в движение ради тебя, чтобы встретить тебя при входе твоем."

"Oh, look." Carlos points to the front of the checkout line. "I think it's your turn."

The cashier and her daemon (a golden finch) both wince at the headdresses too, but business is business and his money is still accurate, so they ring up his TV dinners, a bunch of bananas, and a couple of single-serving pies. The Tracker scoops them all into a plastic bag, then says, "Carlos?"

Carlos jumps, spilling candy and high-preservative sugary treats in a heap on the belt. "Yes?"

"С Рождеством Христовым." It has the inflection of Merry Christmas, and a tone of someone dispensing holiday goodwill. "не говорите, что я вас не предупреждал."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Security at the Randy Neumann Memorial Night Vale Aerodock is tight as ever. Metal detectors, full-body scanners, a lengthy pitch-black tunnel too short to walk through upright. Crawling with a small wheeled suitcase dragging behind you and an armadillo cradled in one arm isn't easy, but there's no way in hell Carlos and Isaña are walking separately when they can't see each other.

A monotone male voice, reminding Carlos of nothing so much as the one that announces incoming trains in the Trimountaine subway, lists possible ways of dying as they clamber through the featureless tunnel:

Police brutality.

Wild dog attack.

Wild pterodactyl attack.

Suicide.

Ritual disembowelment.

Shot by a witch whose love you spurned.

Valentine's Day explosion.

Failed attempt at intercision.

Successful attempt at intercision.

Visit to the Night Vale Public Library.

Sting by the poison-spurred heels of Gallivespian warriors.

Gyropter crash.

Falling into the Void.

There's more, but Carlos half-shuffles, half-falls out of the passage into a long empty hallway with ads on the walls and bland speckled tiles on the floor. A sign points out restrooms to the left, gates B1-B7 to the right, the food court and gates B8-B12 straight ahead. He puts his daemon down and takes a moment to brush the dust off his knees.

He'd forgotten about the ceiling grates until a small child's voice comes through one of them: "D'you remember every person you ever kissed?"

"Yes." Carlos rubs his neck; he's got a crick in it from the crawling.

"What's their names?"

"Chloe Baker. Rosalyn Torres."

The unseen child sounds suspicious. "Is that all?"

"My one true love is experimental theology," says Carlos testily. Why should he have to justify his romantic history to a kid hiding in the ceiling? "And my flight is 617, to Trimountaine with a stopover at Dallas. Can I have my gate number, please?"

The last thing he needs right now is to be late. He has family members to catch up with, most of whom he hasn't even seen for almost a year now. He has exotic foreign treats to disperse to his nieces and nephews. He has exotic foreign treats to pick up and bring back to the locals. He has a Harvard employee discount to take advantage of.

A sigh from above. "B6. Enjoy your flight. Come back soon."

Chapter Text

Carlos' sister Lena picks him up at the train station, the last stop on a long overnight cross-continental journey. She kisses both his cheeks and wheels his suitcases to the car, while her daemon, a dark-furred fruit bat with a straw-colored chest and big brown eyes, lands on Isaña's back and nuzzles her ears the whole way.

"So how is Night Vale? We've barely heard from you since you took off!" Lena hefts his luggage into the back seat; Carlos picks up Isaña and sets her next to it, while the fruit bat simply flies in. "Is it as fascinating as you expected? I want to know everything."

"Um," says Carlos. "That could take a while."

"Fair enough," says his sister. "How about the most interesting thing, then? Just tell me that."

The most interesting thing is probably the set of anomalies associated with Point A. But Carlos can't talk about the alethiometer, and still doesn't want to try to explain Cecil. "Uh...."

He's still at a loss for words as they pull out of the parking lot, which is when the radio switches from a mattress commercial to a man's voice saying, "And now, the weather."

"Oh, hey," says Carlos, and turns it up. He's starting to get a feel for what musical styles and instruments correspond to which variation on hot and dry, but what does the possibly-snowy cold of an east-coast winter sound like?

"Cloudy skies this afternoon, and we're expecting four to six inches of freezing rain later on, so bundle up if you're going out, folks. Lows in the mid-thirties tonight...."

Oh. Right.

Carlos switches the radio off before it makes things any more weird. "There's one thing I wanted to ask your advice on, actually," he says to Lena, as the tall, crowded, tree-lined buildings of small-town Narragansett roll by outside. "We've been working with a local woman who has angels living in her home." (He has to suppress the instinct to add even though they don't exist.)

"That's my field, all right."

"No, not angels like the ones your patients get messages from. Angel angels. Ancient beings who can move between worlds and are composed entirely of Rusakov particles."

"You're kidding."

"I'm not kidding."

"Carlos, that's fantastic!" exclaims Lena. "So are you up for a Nobel Prize yet, or do you have to wait to be eligible until next year?"

"Honestly? I wouldn't even submit it," says Carlos. "It would jeopardize our ability to work with the town, where angels officially do not exist, and even ignoring the trouble it would cause us there, it would put us under the eye of the Magisterium in a way we're not prepared to deal with. They aren't 'glory to God in the highest heaven' angels, Lena. They all agree that there is no God — and no heaven, either. So my question is, should I risk bringing any of that up with the rest of the family, or should I dodge the topic as much as possible to avoid ruining everybody's Christmas?"

"Wow," says Lena after a minute. "And here I thought I had a busy year because the practice moved to a new building."

"Well, I'm sure that was stressful in its own way," says Carlos generously.

His sister laughs. "Always so polite, mi hermano. You want my advice, here it is. Our parents aren't getting any less religious as they get older, Mike's still a believer last I checked, and his wife, she won't be happy at all if you say things like that around her boys. They probably won't believe you if you say these things about angels — I'm not sure I believe you — but maybe don't bring it up unless you're ready for a fight."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Mamá and Papi are the first to hug Carlos when he gets in the door, but they don't have time for much of a greeting before Carlos is practically tackled by Lena's youngest daughter and Mike's twin boys. The girl is around Renée Carlsberg's age, the boys a couple years younger, unsettled daemons flickering between different small-bird forms and hopping around on their shoulders with excitement. "Uncle Carlos, Uncle Carlos! What'd you bring us?"

"Boys!" yells Mike from across the living room. "Don't be rude to your uncle!"

Carlos sinks into a crouch and ruffles the kids' hair. "As it happens, I just might have something in my bag with your names on it...if your father says it's okay."

The twins turn immediately to Mike. "Dad-dy! Can we, please, please, please?"

Which leaves Lena's girl Rosa, who clearly isn't about to repeat her cousins' mistakes. "It's very nice to see you, Uncle Carlos," she says with exaggerated sweetness, even throwing in a curtsy (her daemon taking a lemur form to mirror the motion). "How was your trip?"

"Long," says Carlos. Especially the layover in the Republic of Texas, where a security guard was definitely tailing him for a while, as if being of Hispanian descent means you must have nefarious intentions at the Cinnabon. "But the good news is, none of your presents got confiscated at customs."

He goes over to hug Mike, whose maned-wolf daemon bats affectionately at Isaña's shell, and learns that Mike's wife and the baby are in the back room resting. Behind him, Lena asks after the rest of her kids; Mamá explains that Lena's husband and eldest daughter went to the store for some last-minute groceries, but their son is in the den, playing "some video game, but on the Internet?"

Lena leaves Carlos' bags at the front door and swishes across the living room to the hall door, fruit-bat daemon perched on her shoulder. "Lucas! Come and say hello to your uncle!"

A muffled teenage voice answers. "Mom! I'm busy!"

"It's all right," says Carlos, standing next to her, speaking too low for it to carry down the hall. "I can wait."

"So can World of Warcraft," grumbles his sister, unmoved. To Lucas, she adds, "Uncle Carlos traveled a long way to see us! Put down the game for one minute and get out here!"

It does the trick. A moment later, Lena's thirteen-year-old comes shuffling out of the den...

...with a white antelope daemon clopping along behind him.

Carlos grabs the doorjamb to keep himself steady. Logically he knows his nephew has nothing to do with Telly. He just has to quash his brain's automatic panic response until it passes.

"Hi, Uncle Carlos," says Lucas dutifully. His daemon nods a greeting to Isaña, who is pressed flush against Carlos' shoe.

"Good to see you, Lucas," says Carlos, and hopes his voice isn't shaking. "So, ah, I guess you've settled, huh? Congratulations."

"Thanks. Can I go now, Mom? I'm the only one in my guild with resurrection ability online right now, and they're counting on me."

Lena sighs and waves him away. Carlos doesn't move. He thinks he's doing an okay impression of someone who isn't fighting off an anxiety attack, until Mamá exclaims, "Carlos, cielito mío, what's wrong? You look like you're going to fall over!"

"I'm okay, really," lies Carlos. He's been speaking English with the kids, but falls back into Spanish in replying to his mother. "It was a long trip. I guess I'm more tired than I realized."

"Why, of course you are. Come with me, let me show you to where you'll be sleeping. Mikey, get your brother's luggage for him. And when did you last eat?"

Mike goes to get the suitcases (which his sons have been trying to sneak a look through while everyone's distracted), and Carlos lets Mamá lead him down the hall, while her raccoon daemon simply picks Isaña up in his arms and carries her. "They fed us on the plane...."

"Airline food! And you've probably been living off TV dinners at that research post of yours, too."

Carlos makes his usual protests, though he's given up on his mother ever believing them. "I know how to do my own cooking, Mamá. Un teólogo experimental es autosuficiente...."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

He takes a nap in spite of himself, and when he wakes it's after sunset, with the tree in the front room all lit up in glittering colors.

There's a football game on in the den now, drawing in all the other adult men plus Mike's wife, so Lucas and his white antelope and his World of Warcraft have migrated out to an armchair by the tree. The rest of the kids are scattered around the house, and Mamá and Lena are in the kitchen baking cookies. Carlos and Isaña hang around in the kitchen, partly to talk and partly because they don't trust the flour.

Mike and his maned-wolf daemon come in during a commercial break. "The prodigal son awakes!" he exclaims of Carlos, sticking a bag of instant popcorn in the microwave. "Mamá isn't letting you near the baking, huh?"

"Carlos has just been telling us the most fascinating story about a house that doesn't exist," says Mamá. "Tell your brother, Carlos."

Mike frowns. "If it doesn't exist, what is there to tell?"

"The problem is that it seems like it exists," explains Carlos from his seat at the kitchen table, scratching under Isaña's chin. "It's right there when you look at it, and it's between two other identical houses, so it would make more sense for it to be there than not...." And he's losing Mike's interest already, he can see it. "So that's a general summary. Now, I've been meaning to ask, could you take a look at my watch?"

"Sure!" Mike takes the seat across from Carlos. "What's wrong with it?"

"Wish I knew," says Carlos, pulling the watch off his wrist. He isn't sure why he still wears the thing at this point. "Sometimes it's slow, sometimes it's fast...I don't even want to think about how much of our early data it's probably skewed."

"Could just be the battery." Mike produces a tiny screwdriver out of nowhere and bends over the device, and Carlos has a vivid, fond (in retrospect) memory of his twelve-year-old self discovering eight-year-old Mikey with the dismembered remains of Carlos' favorite calculator. "Let's pop it out and see...."

He pries off the back cover...and sits up with a start.

There's no battery inside Carlos' watch. No gears, either. Nothing that remotely resembles part of a clock. Just a pea-sized lump of something grey and gooey, in an otherwise hollow space.

"I think I found your problem," says Mike.

"What is it?" calls Lena from the mixing bowl. Her bat daemon flaps over the table, lands next to the watch, and peers in. "Eeww," he reports.

Mike moves to poke the thing with his screwdriver.

"Don't touch it!" snaps Carlos. "I know we can't all be experimental theologians, but basic safety precautions, please? Now, do we have any sealed containers? The more airtight, the better."

His mother, sleeves rolled up and with flour on her apron, comes over to the table and peers at the watch. "Oh dear," she says mildly. "Will Tupperware do, mi cariño?"

"Tupperware is fine. And salt. We have salt, right?"

"Of course, cielito. Is store brand all right?"

Store brand is good enough for the angels, so it's good enough for Carlos. He sets the watch in the Tupperware box, pouring an unbroken line of salt in a circle around where the grey lump is sitting. His mother and younger siblings are all hovering now, Mike's daemon sitting up on her hind legs with her paws on the table to get a closer look. Behind him, the microwave beeps, and the last few kernels of popcorn pop.

"Should I ask what you're doing?" says Mike. "Or is that 'basic' too?"

Carlos ducks his head, while Isaña curls up with embarrassment. Did he really say...? Yeah, he said that. "I'm sorry. I'm just used to people who know how to deal with these. We get them on a daily basis in Night Vale."

"Gelatinous grey lumps?"

"Weird, inexplicable things." Carlos seals the lid, and adds an X of salt on top. "I don't know what this one is, so for all I know it's totally benign and wasn't doing anything besides badly running a watch, but just in case it has any kind of malign influence...salt is a good way of blocking most of that off. Now it's just a question of whether to destroy it, or take it back to work for study."

He ends up stashing the container on top of the microwave for the time being. The younger kids won't get into it there. "Need to mark it somehow...do we have a label maker around? Or a set of stamps? Or, in a pinch, a plastic straw, some cotton, and a darkly pigmented sauce?"

"Uh, Carlos?"

"Yes, Lena?"

His sister taps the grocery-list-sized pad of paper hanging on the fridge...with the marker that sits in the clip next to it. "Will this work?"

Carlos can't keep himself from flinching, but he manages not to yell at anyone for keeping dangerous contraband. "Yes. Yes, that will work fine."

"Allow me." Lena uncaps the marker and writes, in neat blocky letters, Carlos Experiment DO NOT TOUCH!!!

"Lena!"

"What? If it was good enough for you when you were ten, it's good enough for you now."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Dinner is loud and chaotic and never has less than three people talking at once. They barely all fit in the room. Lena's son and Mike's wife have the chairs closest to the doors, so their oversize daemons can sit just outside; the other daemons perch on shoulders or curl up under chairs or congregate in small friendly groups in the corners.

It's wonderful.

Carlos' parents use mostly Spanish, the kids and spouses stick to English, Carlos and his siblings slide back and forth, and they all understand each other well enough to get by. In between Lena's description of some renovations they've done on their kitchen and her eldest daughter's proud recounting of a lead solo in the school choir, Carlos shares the highlights of his colleagues' study of otherworldly DNA. Which leads to talking about Hiram McDaniels.

Mike's twins are enthralled. The curly-haired one tugs on his father's sleeve, dragging Mike out of a cute baby story. "Daddy, Daddy! Uncle Carlos knows a dragon!"

"Sure he does, kiddo." Mike ruffles his son's hair.

"No, he really does, Daddy!" insists the straight-haired twin, jerboa-shaped daemon hopping on the table. "He really does!"

"I wouldn't say I know him," protests Carlos. "We've only met once. And I've seen him around town sometimes."

"Oh, come on, it makes a much better story if you know him," says Mike. "Maybe you saved his life at some point, and now he carries you around on his back like Iorek Byrnison?"

The boys turn excitedly back to Carlos. "Ooh, does he, does he?" cajoles the straight-haired twin.

"Do you know any armored bears?" adds the curly-haired twin, his moth-shaped daemon fluttering off behind him and transforming into a polar bear cub.

So Mike doesn't believe him. Oh well. It's not like Carlos has any proof; he could go to Hiram's blog, but on the Internet anyone can say they're a dragon. Shrugging it off, Carlos turns back to his nephews: "Come on, boys, think about it for a minute. Why would an armored bear want to live in a desert? It just wouldn't be logical."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A long, unfenced stretch of the edge of Niton Canyon stretches out in front of him, with someone standing on the edge.

Their back is turned, features unclear, daemon a shadowed blur...but Carlos knows, with dream-logic, that it's someone on his team. He shouts a name, runs toward them — or at least, he tries to — his footfalls are slow as molasses, the scenery around him barely moves —

His colleague goes toppling over the cliffside.

No last-minute rescue this time. Just Carlos and his daemon, alone, still moving too slowly...and yet they can't stop. Gravity propels Carlos down the slope. Isaña skids and skitters on the loose, rocky soil. And there's no fence....

Carlos gets enough traction from somewhere to slow down. But Isaña, his Isaña, keeps going.

She falls out of sight, and the sharp Pull tears out something behind his ribs, with searing, blinding pain —

— He lashes out blindly at the person looming over him.

"Carlos, hey, calm down!"

The ground yields unsteadily when he moves, dizzying, like a boat on open water; but Isaña is there, right close by and scrambling into his arms. Carlos grabs her and hugs her against the warm pulse of his throat, panting for breath.

"It was just a dream. Shhh, you're gonna wake the whole house."

Piece by piece, the scene around Carlos falls into place. He's at his parents' house, stashed down in the basement...technically not in the laundry room, but not by much. The wobbling ground is a poorly-inflated air mattress. The threatening stranger is just his little brother kneeling to wake him up, scruffy and unshaven in flannel pajamas.

"Okay now?" asks Mike.

"Better," says Carlos hoarsely. "I didn't wake you up, did I?" If his nightmare-driven yelling carries all the way to the pull-out couch on the next floor up....

"No, you just gave Brendan a scare." Mike nods to the semi-partitioned other half of the basement, where Carlos notices the curly-haired twin peeking out from behind the wall. (The straight-haired twin is Ethan; Carlos estimates he gets their names right about eighty percent of the time.) "It's okay, kiddo. Uncle Carlos had a bad dream, that's all. You can go back to bed now."

"'Kay," says Brendan, hugging his daemon, who's in the form of the biggest, fluffiest lop-eared rabbit Carlos has ever seen. "G'night, Uncle Carlos."

Carlos gives him a little wave, and the send-off Mamá always used to do. "Buenas noches, que sueñes con los angelitos." Good night, and may you dream of angels.

As the boy scurries away, Mike sits back on his heels on the cheap carpet. His maned-wolf daemon leans heavily against his side, and he runs his hand through her thick reddish coat, smoothing out the bad case of bed-fur she's got going on. "Think you're out of the woods yet?" he says in a low voice. "Or is it going to start up again if you fall back asleep?"

"Fifty-fifty," estimates Carlos.

"You want hot chocolatl? Or to talk about it?"

He doesn't, but he's tired and still pretty fuzzy and it slips out before he can stop himself. "One of our grad students tried to kill himself. Jumped off a cliff while I was trying to talk him down."

"Wow," says Mike softly.

Carlos nods. The solemnity of it hangs in the air. In the next room, the furnace rumbles on.

Then Mike adds, "I think Lena would say that's an expression of your subconscious anxiety about keeping your colleagues safe. And that you feel much more responsible for them than you need to."

"Wha...?" Carlos squints at him, lack of glasses making everything blurry. "Esa no era el sueño, hermanito. That really happened. The dream was just...rehashing it."

His brother looks stricken. "Jesus, Carlos...!"

"It's okay! He lived." Carlos sits up on one elbow, awkwardly holding the comforter and his daemon in place against the light chill of the basement, keeping his voice hushed. "He got sent home in two pieces. It all worked out in the end."

"How on earth did he survive it?"

"Hiram McDaniels caught him."

Mike and his daemon share a significant look.

"I'm not making this up," says Carlos.

"I should let you get back to sleep," says Mike, getting up. "Que sueñes con los angelitos."

(Carlos just might.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

After breakfast, Lena's husband starts trying to nail down plans for a family trip into Trimountaine that afternoon. Carlos, who has shopping to do, is on board right away.

Papi isn't much for travel these days, though Mamá thinks it's a grand idea. Mike's wife just likes the sound of being able to shuffle the twins off into someone else's care for a while (Carlos doesn't blame her). Lena herself has been ready to go since she woke up, but her daughters are both still asleep and her son would rather stay on his MMORPG all day.

Carlos is arm-wrestling with the twins — both at the same time, because it seems fairer that way — when the argument between Lucas and his father gets uncomfortably loud.

"Ah, you got me!" exclaims Carlos to the boys, conveniently losing right that moment. "Rematch in five minutes, all right? I gotta go ask Tía Lena something."

"He means Aunt Lena," Brendan stage-whispers to Ethan.

That hurts Carlos' heart a little. But he can't beam extra Spanish familiarity into their heads, so he and Isaña let it be and go find Lena, where he says in a low voice, "I don't want to get in the middle of anything, but is there a reason you have to push this with your son? He'll still be spending time with family if he stays here."

"We have tickets to The Nutcracker this evening. All five of us. Non-refundable."

"Could you invite someone else to go instead? Call a friend. Or hand it to someone outside the theater, give them a Christmas miracle."

"Lucas needs to get out of the house once in a while."

"Isn't that hard for him, though? With his daemon...."

"There's no reason he can't do everything a person with a smaller daemon would do," says Lena sharply. "Our car is built to fit him. The trains are accessible. We called ahead and made sure there was seating at the theater. And if anybody has a problem with him, or thinks he's inconvenient to be around, screw 'em. That's their problem, not his."

"Of course it's their problem," Carlos assures her. "I'm just thinking about one of the people on my team — about a decade older than I am, with a musk ox daemon. We have things set up so he doesn't have any trouble getting around...but he doesn't like being in crowded places. It's not about avoiding something he enjoys because the place isn't built well or the people are rude. He's in his fifties; he doesn't give a damn about rude people. He just genuinely doesn't like it."

"How do you know that has anything to do with his daemon?" counters Lena. "It could be social anxiety, or —"

"He says it's about his daemon," says Carlos. "And we've had a few long conversations about it. A project chaplain is in charge of making sure we accommodate everyone's needs. It's the third thing a project chaplain is in charge of."

Lena sighs. "I see. Well, maybe you have a point. Let me go talk to my boys."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The city-going party ends up involving two cars, eight people, and no Lucas. Carlos tries not to look as relieved as he feels. He's stopped getting the full wave of nausea around his nephew's white antelope, but he's twitchy and worried and always has a part of his mind tracking where the daemon is, and he'll be glad to have some distance between them for a while.

Lena's husband drives her and the twins, while Mamá takes her own car, with Carlos in the passenger seat and his nieces in the back. The older girl, Dawn — fourteen, a jewel-bright lizard daemon tucked warmly in her coat's side pocket — buckles up and pulls out her phone in the same breath. "Uncle Carlos, what did you say the town you work in was called?"

"Night Vale. That's Night with an N."

"If it's in Hispania Nova, how come its name isn't in Spanish?" pipes up nine-year-old Rosa.

"It probably had English colonists at some point, cielito," says Mamá, in her accented English with Spanish endearments thrown in. "Just like New Amsterdam used to have Dutch colonists, yes?"

"There's like nothing on the City Council website," reports Dawn. "And where did they get this Under Construction image? Like, the hoodies are a cute twist, but the nineties called, they want their gifs back."

Frankly, Carlos is stunned she got the site to load at all. "If you want information or photos, the Tourism Board website is a better bet."

"Their actual logo is kinda cool, though." Dawn reads off the motto: "Cogi Qui Potest Nescit Mori."

"That isn't Spanish either!" protests Rosa. "What's it mean, Uncle Carlos?"

"No, no, don't tell me!" cries Dawn. "I'm taking Roman, I can figure it out. Hang on."

Carlos kind of hopes she can't.

No such luck. A minute later, Dawn has it: "One who can be forced has not learned how to die. That is super creepy."

"I don't get it," says Rosa.

"It's just an old expression," says Carlos firmly, caressing under Isaña's chin with gloved fingers. "Towns pick old Roman mottoes to sound impressive, not to mean anything."

"Okay, I found a link to the tourism site," reports Dawn. "Let's see...hey, is the library site going to be under construction too?"

Carlos tenses. "Don't go to the library site."

It comes out sharper than he intended, and his niece bristles with defensiveness. "Like, I only even clicked by accident."

"There's nothing wrong with the girl visiting a library site, querido," chides Mamá. "Children don't get enough of the library these days."

"Yes, but that one has — malware," invents Carlos. "Get out of there, Dawn."

"Why didn't you say so?" exclaims Dawn. Carlos gets a glimpse of her frantically pressing buttons in the rearview mirror. "It wasn't done loading, so it shouldn't — I mean, it probably won't have —"

Rosa leans eagerly over the middle seat. "Did you break your phone again?"

"Shut up, Rosa! It just froze — it does that, like, all the time on big sites. All you have to do is turn it off and on —"

A long pause.

"Uncle Carlos! It won't even turn on!"

Mamá shakes her head as they pull into the train station parking lot. (Nobody with any sense of self-preservation drives all the way into Trimountaine.) "You probably just drained the battery, mi tesoro."

"I just finished charging the battery, Grandma!"

"Well, cielito, this modern technology sometimes stops working for no reason. That's what keeps your Tío Mike in a job. He can take a look at it when you get home, yes?"

With a sigh, Carlos holds out one gloved hand. This isn't exactly his fault, but he's pretty sure it's his responsibility. "Here, Dawn. Give it to me."

"Can you fix it?" asks Dawn weakly. Her jeweled lizard daemon's head pokes up out of the fleece-lined pocket.

"Probably not." Carlos tucks the phone in one of his own pockets. This way, if it starts doing anything weird or dangerous, he'll be at ground zero to handle it. He'll have to scoop up some of the rock salt that's all over the roads, to make an ad-hoc barrier. "But if it turns out you're going to need a new one, Santa will need some way to make sure he picks up the right model."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The little posse spends an hour or so wandering downtown Trimountaine, checking out the brilliant light displays strung up between buildings, the decorated trees all over the Common, the last-minute sale specials going on in stores. All too soon Carlos has to make his excuses and take off. He and Isaña have their own shopping to do.

Unlike the malls and the big convenience stores, the Harvard Shop doesn't keep extra-late holiday hours.

Finding something for Cecil is a harder task than he expected. A lot of the merchandise is printed, not engraved or embroidered, which means it might as well be blank to Cecil's strange vision. And the more Carlos looks over endless variations on the same set of logos, the more his own eyes start to glaze over.

He's spacing out in front of a wall of pennants when a voice says, "Excuse me — are you Dr. Ramirez?"

It's one of the student employees: the only other person in the store right now. Carlos runs through his mental list of past class rosters, trying to place a young Asian woman with a marble-furred civet daemon, and comes up empty. "That's me. I'm very sorry, but should I know you?"

"Oh, no, I'm class of '15," says the student quickly. Too recent for Carlos to have been teaching at all, then. "And I'm a business major anyway, but I have friends in experimental theology, and...really, you're the guy running the cursed field project?"

"Sorry, the what?"

"The Night Vale project," she clarifies. "The one where half the team has already been sent home with serious physical and/or psychological injuries?"

"Now, hang on just a minute," says Carlos. "We haven't lost half the team — only forty percent! And half of those were...." No, he can't let it slip that any of the medical excuses were faked. Although it probably wouldn't help his case much anyway, revealing that he thinks the town is dangerous enough that it's worth falsifying medical excuses to get people out of there. "...not all that serious."

The employee nods. "And you're just in town for the holidays, right? The research isn't canceled or anything?"

"Nothing is canceled," agrees Carlos. Though he knocks twice on the nearest wooden shelf, just in case.

"Well, good luck with the rest of it," says the student. "I can't wait to tell my roommate I saw you. She's convinced the rest of the team is secretly dead, and here you are...um, probably trying to buy something. Is there anything I can help you find?"

Carlos sighs. "I'm trying to pick out a present for a friend. He has some visual impairments, so the more three-dimensional it is, the better."

"We have some really neat 3-D magnets. Let me show you."

"That sounds promising," says Carlos, following her down the aisle with Isaña at his heels. "He's a fan of 'neat'."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A couple of sturdy canvas bags, carrying the Harvard purchase plus the rest of his holiday shopping, are piled on the cold cement at Carlos' feet. His daemon is tucked inside the front of his coat. The sun is setting, right on schedule. The buses are also on schedule, and to a casual observer, Carlos looks like he's sitting on this bench because he's waiting for the next one.

Three buses have gone by. He's cleaned his glasses five times.

An unfamiliar man takes a seat on the bench next to him. Carlos doesn't think anything of it until the man says, "Just go in."

Carlos jumps. "Excuse me?"

The stranger nods to the establishment across the street: the one Carlos has been carefully not staring at. He's wearing a standard insect-daemon protective case on a brown lanyard; it swings with the motion.

"Oh — I'm not — you have the wrong idea, I —"

"When people sit here for a long time, it's for a reason," says the man. "The present tense of regret is indecision. You've made it this far. Go on."

Carlos looks down at Isaña. She hesitates, then gives a rapid little nod.

"All right," he says. "I will."

He scoops up the bags and gets to his feet, checking the walk signal at the end of the twisting Trimountaine block. Plenty of time to cross the road, asphalt crunchy with salt, and walk all the way up to the bar's front steps. For just a moment he turns back to look at the bench: it's empty.

"Guess he went inside," says Carlos.

"Do you blame him?" asks Isaña. "He must have been freezing. Didn't even have a real coat, just that tan jacket."

Carlos nods, opens the door of the bar with the rainbow-flag decal in a corner of the window, and lets himself in.

Chapter Text

Carlos is alone on a bar stool, just him and his daemon and a half-finished pint of "whatever you have on tap," still not convinced this is a good idea.

His coat and his bags are safely checked at the front door; he has just under two hours before he has to go meet up with Lena and her family for his late-night ride home. In theory there's nothing to hold him back. In practice, he's not sure what he's not being held back from. Should he just walk up and talk to someone? Would it be polite to buy the guy a drink first? This place is unexpectedly heavy on white people; how are you supposed to filter for the ones with creepy race fetishes? What if people assume he's here because he has a creepy race fetish?

"Hey there, gorgeous."

Carlos jumps. So does Isaña — which is a way more impressive sight, because she was sitting on the small-daemon platform right up next to the bar, and startled armadillos can jump three feet straight up.

"Whoa!" exclaims the guy who just sat down next to them. "Did not know they could do that."

"It's a reflex to scare off predators," stammers Carlos. So this is why people drink at singles bars. They need the muscle relaxant. "Works great for armadillos who are being chased by, say, wolves. Less great if the thing bearing down on them is a car. Um. Hi."

Hey-there-gorgeous guy grins. He's a cute white boy, floppy blonde hair, wearing an outfit that manages to be equal parts dapper and glittery. "So...I'm guessing this is your first time here."

"A valid hypothesis."

"Newly single? Some fool let you go and now you have to figure out how to date? Or, ooh, sweetie, did you just come out?"

"Not out at all," sighs Carlos, leaning on one elbow on the bar. "If there's anything to be out about. Which, granted...there very likely is. But." He soothes Isaña with his free hand. "But it calls for...experiments. Tests. Not that I only see you as test subjects! Although maybe in a way I do, because this is definitely not going to lead to anything serious. And furthermore, I'm an experimental theologian. Doing experiments is what an experimental theologian does. It's right there in the name."

"Slow down there, Professor," laughs the cute white boy. "No offense taken. If you're looking for a test subject...."

He stretches out his leg, and his daemon runs up it, stepping from his lap to the curve of the platform: a huge, sleek-furred rat, her body an inch or two longer than Isaña's.

"...I'm your guy."

The rat daemon ducks into an almost canine play-with-me stance, waits for Isaña to take a few shy steps toward her, then slinks forward and rubs their faces together. Isaña shivers in appreciation.

"Rats," says Carlos, with a fond sigh. "Rats are great. Very smart. Very social. You know they'll share treats with each other? Altruism. It's great."

"Mmm," agrees Cute White Boy —

— and then his sock-clad foot is tracing up the side of Carlos' pant leg.

Carlos wipes his sweating palms on his sleeves. "Are you even legal?" he says weakly.

"Twenty-four. You need to see some ID?"

"Oh my god, you're younger than my baby sister."

The age difference is only hammered home by that follow-up offer. Before the '80s, you wouldn't give a stranger your real name in a gay bar any more than you would...well, give a stranger your real name in a gay bar in the modern Republic of Texas. Carlos may not have paid much attention to (non-experimental-theology-related) news during middle school, but he does have a vague sense of when gay rights turned into a Movement. This kid wasn't even born until '89.

"At least you didn't say 'son'." The blonde pauses. "Although, I gotta say, that could be hot too."

"I swear, the grey is premature." Carlos' breath catches over the words. This whole foot-leg-stroking-action is doing things to his nerves. And his heart rate.

"Don't worry, Professor, I believe you. So...how are you liking this?"

"Mguh," says Carlos.

"Fabulous!" coos the blonde. "Now, if you're going to make a real experiment out of this...how about switching up some variables?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

This is not what Carlos had in mind when he mentioned sharing your treats.

"This is Joe, Jack, and Jeff," says Cute White Boy, cradling his rat daemon in one arm and gesturing to his friends with the other. They're at a table at the edge of the room, where half the seats are a bench built into the wall and the light is dim enough to strain Carlos' eyes.

Carlos nods hello to three faces (at least two of them aren't white, so that's something), and sets Isaña on the tabletop with their daemons. "And you're, what, Josh? Jerry?"

The blonde grins. "Nah. Colden."

"We give him hell about it, don't worry," says the brown-skinned guy with the long braid. Carlos thinks it's Jeff, but he's already having trouble keeping them straight.

"We're gonna give him a whole lot more hell if he walks out of here with you tonight," adds the guy with the lizard daemon. (Joe?)

Colden puts his arm around Carlos. "Actually, the Professor here is doing a little...let's say...experimenting with his sexuality. So here I am thinking, huh, what if I volunteer my friends as test subjects? And then I think, no, that would be pretty inconsiderate, just assuming my friends would be willing to make out with a gorgeous shy older man without even asking!"

If Carlos' face gets any hotter, he's going to set something on fire. "I didn't ask to — this was all his idea!"

"Oh, of course!" says Colden. To his friends, he adds, "He's a very serious person. Does a lot of experimental theology."

Probably-Joe, whose hair is dark at the sides but bleached on top with a knife-sharp precision, perks up. "You're an experimental theologian? I'm a botanist. What's your field?"

Carlos resists the urge to say something about how he studies real experimental theology, not botany, which as far as he's concerned is basically gardening. "Rusakov particles."

"Say again?"

"The elementary particle that responds to conscious intention. You've probably heard of them as Dust?"

Nods of recognition all around the table.

"Well, I say elementary particle," adds Carlos with a nervous laugh. "but obviously there's a lot of debate about that. It seems like we should be able to break them down. They're a lot bigger than all other elementary particles, so it would make more sense if we were able to break them down. I mean, if you think about just the difference in orders of magnitude between a proton and an atom, let alone a molecule —"

This is when Colden kisses him. Which, all things considered, is probably good timing.

It's warm and soft and weird and awkward — Carlos has kissed people before, all two of them, but in both cases they were equally shy and inexperienced, and right now he's starkly aware that his partner knows what he's doing and the fumbling is all on Carlos' part. (Also, it's the first time he's been the shorter one.) Colden curls a hand around the back of his neck and cups the base of his skull, which helps steady out the angle. A shiver runs through Carlos; he goes weak at the knees, grabbing the younger man's waist mostly to keep from falling over on top of him.

"Mmmm." Colden beams down at him. On the table, his rat daemon is licking Isaña's ears in a highly distracting way. (Daemon bodies don't get sexual feelings any more than they get hungry, but with physical contact, their humans' intentions carry right through them.) "What's the verdict, Professor? Was that all right?"

"I," says Carlos. "I, um. Yes. I think. Y-yes."

"Want to give any of the other guys a test run? For comparison?"

And the crazy thing is...Carlos kind of does.

He gets ushered down onto the bench. It happens to be next to the botanist with the lizard daemon, who takes this slow: kissing a whole path up the line of Carlos' jaw and tracing his fingertips down Carlos' collar before going for his mouth, soft and sweet. Oh. Until this moment Carlos had not realized back-arching could be an involuntary muscular action.

A shuffling of places (it's like a mad hybrid of musical-chairs and spin-the-bottle), and the guy with the long braid and the sparrow daemon is running a flat palm down Carlos' chest. He pulls off Carlos' glasses and kisses fierce, tugging on his hair, making Carlos' heart rate kick up yet another notch — and pumping what feels like half the blood in his body toward...well. Not toward his face. Thank whoever designed this place that it's so dark, because mmmm.

The young man with piles of dark curls and a prettily patterned newt takes off his own glasses before sliding down the bench. He gets a Carlos who is already panting and twitching with the hormone rush, and deals with it by out-moaning him, practically climbing into Carlos' lap and sucking on Carlos' tongue. His stubble is rough against Carlos' skin, his knee, dear lord, one over-enthusiastic writhe away from grinding against Carlos' lap — it's, ah, it's anbaric, every second.

And all four daemons are cuddling up to Isaña — who alternately half-rolls up so her armor cuts down on the overwhelming stimulation, and stretches out as much as possible so she can revel against every inch of it. They wait until the last human is finished with Carlos to back away, leaving her to flop down on her stomach with a happy sigh.

Let go, Carlos slumps back against the wall and clutches his chest: head spinning, gasping for air, shaking all over, embarrassingly hard.

Colden slides lightly into place next to him. "You okay there, Professor?"

Carlos manages to nod.

A few moments later, he has enough of his breath back to add, "I, um. I'm gay."

Approving cheers go up around the table.

"Next round of drinks on me?" adds Carlos faintly.

"Ooh, sweetie," says Colden. "I'm gonna have to kiss you again."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Less than half an hour before Carlos and Isaña have to start back toward the train station, and they're hiding out in a bar bathroom.

Between a couple glasses of water and half a tray of buffalo wings, Carlos' blood alcohol level is back to manageable. That's not the problem. The problem involves his pants being way too tight: a situation that has gone up and down throughout the evening, and is now definitely trending towards up.

So he leans against the locked stall door while Isaña sprawls across the cheap metal shelf bolted to the wall, taking deep breaths and trying to think unsexy thoughts. Even though he only has a vague sense of what turns him on in the first place, let alone how to turn himself off again.

He's halfway through Grumman's formulation for the equation of solar time (B equals A plus three-sixty-over-pi times point zero one six seven times the sine of —), when:

"Professor? You in here?"

Carlos swallows hard. And he'd been feeling so much calmer. "I'm fine! Don't worry about it."

Footsteps on the tiled floor, and Colden leans against the partition on the other side of Carlos. "No worries here, sweetheart. On an unrelated note...I have it on good authority that I give fabulous blowjobs."

Ba-thump goes Carlos' problem situation. "A-authority?"

"Ask Jeff," says Colden cheerfully. "Or Joe. I didn't have a great breakup with Joe, but he's an honest man."

Carlos trades a look with Isaña. "We, ah...we appreciate the thought, but...."

"No pressure to pay me back. This is a fine place for a practical demonstration, but it would be terrible for lessons. Besides...." A soft plastic schwip, and there's a a cyan condom wrapper sticking through the gap in the door, one corner held between two of Colden's fingers. "I only have one of these on me."

Carlos' hand hovers over the wrapper. It would be so easy. Just pluck the thing out of the air, undo the lock, and let the guy in.

His silent hesitation stretches out so long, though, that Colden takes it as a no. "All right," he says, whisking the condom out of sight and stepping away from the door. "Just thought I'd offer."

Footsteps retreat back toward the sinks....

"Wait!" exclaims Isaña.

And Carlos slides back the lock.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It's over in minutes and it still isn't the kind of earth-shaking pleasure advertised in romance novels, but it is good. Sends heat through all Carlos' limbs, makes his hips piston briefly out of conscious control, leaves him feeling all relaxed and tingly.

He strokes Colden's hair for a bit while the younger man ties off the condom, which seems to be the thing to do, because Colden nuzzles his stomach for a moment in appreciation before sliding up to a standing position. "Still gay?"

Carlos offers him a weak grin. "Evidence supports the hypothesis."

"Mmmm." Colden tucks a lock of Carlos' hair back behind his ears while Carlos tucks himself back into his boxers. Over on the shelf, their daemons are still cuddling. "You know, I'm not looking for a boyfriend your age or anything, but if you want to trade numbers...."

That cools things off. "Wouldn't be a good idea."

"You sure?" Colden pauses. "Hang on, you're not married, are you?"

"Only to my work," says Carlos apologetically. "The problem is, I'm leaving the country in three days. Won't be back except on vacation for at least a year and a half. Also, the government where I'm going has a tap on my phone, which I know for a fact is actively monitored. You seem like a very nice person, and the last thing I want is for you to get mixed up in any kind of secret police action by association."

That gets an even longer pause, Colden searching Carlos' eyes for some sign that he's kidding, and not finding it. "Okay, what the hell. Are you some kind of spy?"

Carlos presses a gentle kiss to the blonde's temple. "I swear, I'm just an ordinary experimental theologian."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They're practically floating the whole walk back to the station.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Curled up in the crook of his arm on the air mattress that night, Isaña whispers, "How come we never tried that before?"

(The twins are close by, and may or may not be asleep yet, but they're not worried. They have a lot of experience holding quiet, private conversations.)

"Because nobody made us think it was worth testing," murmurs Carlos. Not until Cecil and his improbably distracting mouth came along. "But I — I didn't even think about Cecil until just now, did you?"

"I've been a little preoccupied," says Isaña dryly.

Carlos laughs and gives her an affectionate squeeze.

It's such a relief, to have confirming evidence that this is a real thing, not an impulse beamed into his brain for Cecil's benefit. It isn't even that Carlos has a weirdly specific sexuality, triggered only by deep voices plus racially-ambiguous features plus hilariously mismatched outfits. He's just as capable of responding to cute blonde white guys in dapper outfits, and femme skraeling guys with languid limbs and silky hair, and wiry Afro guys with piles of tight curls, and guys with a bit of muscle and impressive dye jobs and really stupid actual jobs. (Seriously: botany?)

He should probably roll out the new self-identification to people in his family at some point. It doesn't feel urgent, though. He's been discouraging them from asking about his love life for years, and nobody's pushed the issue recently; they might spend the whole rest of this visit without the topic ever coming up.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

When Mike (wearing gloves) takes a look at Dawn's phone in the morning, it still won't turn on, and the seams have started oozing something black and sludgy all over the base of its container. Carlos can't convince his brother to stop touching the thing, but he finds the new phone he bought, slaps a bow on the packaging, and hands it to his niece while Mike is still poking at the sludge.

Dawn crushes him into a desperate hug. "Thank you so much, Uncle Carlos! You are, like, literally a lifesaver."

Then she dashes out of the kitchen, jeweled-lizard daemon on her shoulder, to get her number transferred.

"So what do I have to break to get you to buy me a new one, huh?"

Carlos immediately tenses. His nephew Lucas is in the doorway, all acne and teenage sullenness and hair exactly like Lena's, in the company of that white antelope daemon. "Your sister got malware from the Night Vale Library website because I didn't warn her in time," he snaps, while Isaña hides behind his feet. "You, on the other hand, are officially warned. Visit the site, and anything that happens is your own fault."

"Fine, geez, you don't have to yell," grumbles Lucas, and shuffles on his way.

Mike and his maned wolf are too absorbed in the phone to notice the outburst. Carlos makes himself sit down, embarrassed, and watches his brother work in silence for a few minutes. At last Mike says, "There is no malware in the world that could do this."

"I know," says Carlos. "It's a Night Vale thing. I wasn't sure how else to explain it."

"Uh-huh. Did it start oozing like this right after it shut down?"

"No, it couldn't have started until after we got home in the evening. I had it in my pocket all afternoon, and my coats is ooze-free."

"You had it all afternoon?" echoes Mike.

"That's right."

Mike nods to the first Tupperware on top of the microwave. "And you'd probably been wearing that watch for a long time too."

Carlos straightens up. "You think my proximity is having some kind of effect on anbaric equipment? It hasn't before...I've carried around my tablet for an entire day and it still works...unless there's some kind of size limit? No, I've been carrying my own phone, too, and it's smaller than Dawn's. Maybe this is new. We should ask if there are any small cheap gadgets lying around here that I can test it with...and maybe I shouldn't sit around all these kitchen appliances for too long...."

"Carlos," interrupts Mike. "That isn't where I was going with this."

For a moment Carlos stares at him, uncomprehending.

Then Isaña scrambles out from under his chair and glares up the maned wolf daemon. "You think we did this ourselves. That we're breaking things on purpose to screw with everyone."

Mike's daemon scratches uncomfortably behind her ear with one back paw. "We didn't say that."

A tiny armadillo facing down a full-sized canine isn't the most intimidating match-up, but she doesn't back down. "What are you trying to say, then? Spit it out!"

"Carlos, hermano, I love you, you know that," says Mike placatingly. "Of course I don't think you would try to scare us on purpose, and I know you would never sabotage your niece's things for a joke."

"But...?" presses Carlos.

"But...you have to admit, even back when we were kids, you always got very...intense...about playing Lyra."

"You think we're...roleplaying?" Slowly, the pieces come together. "No, you...you think we're delusional."

Mike hedges. "That's a very strong word."

"How do you explain this substance?" demands Carlos, jabbing at the sludge. "Or the grey blob in my watch? Either of them look like a familiar material to you?"

"The one in your watch looks like a piece of old chewing gum. Crud gets into machinery sometimes, Carlos! Nothing magical about that."

"For all we know, it is chewing gum! If you were the one who'd almost been killed by breakfast cereal, you'd be nervous around that kind of thing too!"

"Cereal tried to kill you?"

"It turned into snakes first. Look, it's a long story."

"Does any part of this story involve you making friends with a clan of witches, and getting into a fight with a vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium?"

"Only one witch," says Carlos defensively. "And the menacing Magisterium observers have been the least of our worries! I'm fairly certain they're only keeping tabs on us at all because we happen to be in a town they were already monitoring."

The weary, anxious look on Mike's face isn't promising.

"You know what, forget it," snaps Carlos. "I won't ask you for help on any more things like this, and you can stop worrying that I'm asking because I'm trying to be Lyra Silvertongue instead of Dr. Belacqua."

The nice dramatic thing to do here would be to storm out. But first he has to re-close the salt circle around the phone, seal it properly, and put it back on its shelf. Just in case.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A string of Rankin-Bass Christmas specials does wonders for Carlos' mood. The twin boys and Lena's girl Rosa are thrilled too, their daemons shifting into the shapes of the fun seasonal animals marching across their screen in stop-motion animation.

When red-nosed misfit Rudolph makes friends with a lonely elf who just wants to be a dentist and an outcast armored bear who dreams of doing musical theater, all three daemons are fawn-shaped. Carlos doesn't point out that they've all managed to become white-tailed deer, not reindeer. The show isn't exactly accurate about how reindeer look either.

Between Rudolph and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, he gets up to take a bathroom break...and, on the way back out, runs straight into Lena's husband.

"Sorry, didn't see you there," says Carlos quietly, trying to detour around the man.

"Hold on just a minute," says Wes, planting himself in Carlos' way. Both the man and his vervet monkey daemon have their arms folded.

"Sure. Can I help you with something?"

"Yeah, you can." It strikes Carlos that Wes doesn't sound happy. "You got a problem with my son?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Lena's in an armchair next to the Christmas tree, reading a book while her fruit bat daemon hangs from one of the branches, when Carlos throws himself into the living room with Isaña speeding alongside him. "Hermanita, tell your husband —"

"Don't you hide behind your sister!" barks Wes, dragging him back by the arm. "Stand your ground and talk to me like a man!"

"— that triggers are not voluntary, and you can't just flip a switch and turn them off!" Given that Carlos has learned that much just from being related to a psychiatrist, you would think Wes, who lives with her, would have picked it up at some point.

"Everyone calm down!" Lena closes her book and sets it aside. "Honey, let him go. Carlos, what's going on?"

"Says he had a bad experience with some guy with an addax daemon, and now he's holding it against Lucas," says Wes, releasing Carlos but looking ready to grab him again at any second. "That's no trigger, that's just prejudice! Someone like you oughta know better!"

Carlos bristles. He doesn't need to be lectured about racism by a white guy — not that Wes, with three beloved mixed-race kids, can't have experienced it in a way that hits close to the heart, but still —

"Enough!" orders Lena, getting between them. "Wes, sometimes that's how triggers work — but Carlos, since when? Is this a recent development?"

"Five months ago." Carlos tilts his hand in the air to suggest more or less. His heart is pounding. He doesn't want to think about this. "If I've seemed...disrespectful or hostile to your son, and it's upset him, I am very sorry."

"He hasn't said anything to me about it," says Lena. "I've noticed you getting tense sometimes, but I figured it was just because teenage boys can be aggravating."

"You told me he talked you into leaving Lucas at home yesterday," Wes reminds her. "And this morning he snapped at our boy for no reason." To Carlos he adds, "You're a grown man, he's just a kid, and he sure isn't your kid — what could this other addax person have done to justify that?"

Isaña is shivering between Carlos' feet. He drops into a crouch and scoops her up; she immediately rolls up into a tight ball, plates interlocking without a seam, not even her ears sticking out. "Touched —"

"Eh? Speak up!"

"Touched my daemon," pants Carlos, both arms holding Isaña against his chest.

"Jesus, Carlos," breathes Lena.

Carlos sure is hearing that a lot lately.

His sister grips his shoulders, steadying, a version of a supportive hug that doesn't require him to rearrange or let go of his daemon. (Wes has, mercifully, taken the cue to shut up.) "Are you okay? Did they get the guy, or is he still out there?"

"He's...taken care of."

"Was there a trial? Did you call anyone in the family? We would have had your back, you know that."

"Not exactly a trial," says Carlos uncomfortably. "Listen, I wasn't directly involved, so there's only so much I can tell you, all right? But, ah, there may have been some vigilante justice on my behalf." When Lena gasps, he adds, "It's not as bad as it sounds! I'm sure people only resorted to that because it happened as part of a secret-police interrogation, so going through the regular justice system would have been pointless...."

Based on the look on Lena's face, this isn't reassuring her at all.

Carlos switches tactics. "The important thing is, it's over! And I'm all right now, I swear."

"Except for when you aren't," says Lena. "We'll let Lucas know he has to be a little careful around you. Won't we, sweetie?"

"Sure," says Wes. He looks pretty steady, but Carlos doesn't miss how tightly his vervet daemon is clinging to his shoulder, and he trades a look with Lena that says What the hell kind of place has your brother been living in? "Of course we will."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Shortly before dinner, Carlos, Lena, Mike, and their parents crowd around Mamá's computer screen, trying to fit everybody in view of the webcam. Skype lets out a friendly bloop as it connects, and then there's Carlos' baby sister Azalea on the screen, her studio apartment visible in the background. She has bright red streaks dyed into her hair now, matching the belly of the tocororo daemon perched on her shoulder.

All the kids get shuffled through to say hi to their aunt, but for the most part it's just the immediate family catching up. Azalea says her painting is going well, though she hasn't hit the jackpot that will let her quit waitressing — fingers crossed for next year. Mike talks about the baby, and about getting promoted. Lena talks about the office move, and a vacation she took with her family to Eireland over the summer.

"So how about you, Carlos?" prompts Azalea. "You've been on that big field project most of the year, right? How's it going?"

"I don't know if I should tell you, pequeñita," says Carlos, only half kidding. "I've been sharing a few things with the rest of the family, and they all don't believe me, or end up being scared for me, or just think I'm losing my mind."

"You do kind of have a 'mad experimental theologian' hairdo going on," says Azalea with a grin. "Especially with the grey, here." She touches her temples. "Maybe ask Mamá to give you a trim?"

"No!" yelps Carlos.

Uncomfortable silence.

"...Sorry." Carlos sinks down in his seat, pinching the bridge of his nose to ward off a headache. "I'm okay. Sorry about that. Just...please don't talk to me about haircuts."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

There isn't much time after dinner before they all leave for the Christmas Eve service at Carlos' parents' church. He retreats to the basement and does a quick change into nicer clothes, then sits on his air mattress and digs his tablet out of his luggage.

His data is still there. He has animated maps tracking the Rusakov concentrations across Night Vale. The Internet presents him with Hiram McDaniels' blog ("If I were mayor of Night Vale..."), with beautiful panoramas on the Tourism Board website for the Visitable Night Vale campaign ("Niton Canyon: The view is literally breathtaking!"), with Cecil Palmero's Facebook page.

"We're not delusional," says Isaña, curled up against his leg.

"I wasn't afraid that we were," says Carlos stubbornly. "I'm missing it, that's all."

He hasn't friended anyone from Night Vale on Facebook. His own account is guarded with as many privacy controls as the site will allow, and his circle is limited to family and old friends from home; he doesn't want to have to figure out a two-tiered filtering system for dealing with acquaintances or professional contacts.

Cecil's page, by contrast, is full of posts that any random person can read. And why not? He'll probably end up talking about them all on the radio anyway. Gushing about this adorable video he's linked to of a pet rabbit playing with its very own stuffed rabbit. Relating this conversation on his wall with Juosukka "Josie" Hirsti....

...a conversation which is about Carlos. Specifically, whether Carlos will be upset that he won't be getting Cecil's Christmas present until after he gets back into town.

Carlos hovers on the page, trying to decide whether to comment and tell Cecil it'll be fine, or to click away and quit spying on Cecil's posts like some kind of creep. The decision is taken out of his hands when his mother comes down the stairs, raccoon daemon at her heels, prompting Carlos to power down the machine and get up. "Is it time to go?"

"Not yet, mi tesoro. Do you have a tie? I brought one of your father's, in case you didn't."

"I don't," admits Carlos. "Thanks, Mamá."

"Come over here, let me put it on for you. None of your an experimental theologian is self-sufficient nonsense. You never could do up a tie right."

Carlos lets her, but can't help coming up with a different protest as she loops the silk around his neck and tucks it under his collar. "You have six grandchildren in the house right now, Mamá. You don't have to fuss over me like this."

"Of course I do." She weaves the ends through each other, evens them out, cinches the knot up towards his neck. "Mother's privilege. Besides...I have to take care of you as much as I can while you're still around, don't I?"

"What do you mean?"

"Oh...you never know...."

"No, really, Mamá, what is it?" presses Carlos. "You make it sound like I'm dying! I'm only in my late thirties, I'm in good health...why would you talk like that?"

"Because I've been listening to how you talk!" exclaims his mother. "And I see the way your brother and sister look at you, as if they know more than you've been saying to the rest of us...and I'm scared for you, cielito! In your...strange town."

Carlos blinks. Then he pulls Mamá into a warm hug, Isaña nuzzling up against her raccoon daemon. He's a full head taller than her, so his chin ends up resting in her hair: still thick and wavy but entirely silver, a preview of the way his own is going. "Don't be," he says. "I can't tell you there's nothing in town to be afraid of...but living there is easier to get used to than you would think."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The walls are painted stark white, the pews are elegant carved wood, and half the sanctuary is decked out with poinsettias and holly. All the kids in the Christmas pageant are young enough that their daemons can still change form to fit the role, so there's Mary with her sheep, Joseph with his donkey, the shepherds with their dogs, and the Magi with exotic, colorful birds. The girl who plays the angel has her daemon perch on her shoulder as a swan, wings spread.

It's adorable. Carlos, near the center aisle in a pew about halfway toward the back, enjoys it.

He likes the carols, too, when they're all swaying to the same rhythm and the energy in the room is palpable, though he and Isaña keep their own voices low. No matter how much Cecil gushes about his "oaky tones," it's better for everyone if they let themselves be drowned out by the people who know how to sing on-key.

The sermon, in contrast, gives them a little trouble.

"The price was so high that I couldn't pay the price!" trumpets the preacher. His daemon, a red-throated bird, punctuates the moments of highest emotion with ringing calls. "You couldn't pay the price! Ain't nobody could pay the price to get to Him — so He came where I was! That's why I celebrate!"

Carlos stares at the rolled-up curve of Isaña's forehead-plate and thinks you're wrong, there is no Him, and the angels would be so ticked off at you right now.

"God gave His all so He wouldn't lose me! You hear what I'm sayin'? If you don't get a gift — celebrate! Because you got the greatest gift of all!"

Was the historical Jesus special in some other way? He couldn't have been God, but it's entirely possible that he knew angels. Maybe he was the Old Woman Josie of his day.

Carlos has to stifle a laugh at the thought of angels hanging around the carpentry shop, sweeping up sawdust or handing Jesus nails.

"When you're lost, He will find you. Don't matter who you are, don't matter how bad a place you're in, He will bring you through!"

He tries to focus on dry experimental-theology-type thoughts again, to ward off any other inappropriate emotional reactions until the sermon is over. Grumman's equations for solar time seem to be serving him well, so he runs through them again.

"Back in Jesus' day, shepherds were the lowest of the low on the social ladder. Folks said they were uneducated. Folks said they were uncultured! But when an angel of God came down to tell the world that a child had been born, it was to shepherds on a hillside that that angel said —"

C equals A minus the arc tangent of the tangent of B over the cosine of 23.44 —

"Excuse me, can I interrupt?"

A gasp runs through the assembly. Somebody screams. The preacher stutters to a stop.

Carlos raises his eyes to the pulpit, and frowns. What's everyone making such a fuss about? Honestly...it's like they've never seen an Erika before.

Chapter Text

The scene:

An evening church service, the night before Christmas. The preacher is a brimstone-baritone with non-negligible rhythm; the congregation boasts more than a few severe older Afro women whose idea of devout fashion involves hats at least twice as big as their heads, in designs Cecil Palmero would have swooned over. There are probably a dozen non-believers scattered through the pews, but they're so well-hidden that Carlos can't help feeling as much of an outlier as his white brother-in-law.

And a ten-foot-tall humanoid with vast feathery wings has just appeared next to the pulpit. Translucent ebony in color. Male in form. More visible than any angel Carlos has ever encountered. And completely naked, because honestly, what kind of clothes could an angel wear?

The room is alive with varied noises of human awe, confusion, pure religious terror, scandalized horror, and scandalized delight.

The priest tries to improvise something from, judging by his posture, the "worshipful awe" category. Erika cuts him off two words in. "Don't do that, please, it's so unnecessary. I'm just trying to find Carlos the experimental theologian. Is he here?"

Everyone in Carlos' family whips around and stares at him. By the sound of it, everyone in the next couple of pews behind them starts to do the same. Whispers circle the sanctuary. Carlos buries his face in his hands.

"Carlos!" calls the preacher, voice trembling. "My brother Carlos, are you with us?"

There's not going to be any getting out of this. Carlos reluctantly sticks a hand in the air. "Over here, Erika!"

He tucks Isaña into his elbow and gets to his feet, scooting past Lena and her daughters. (Young Rosa has her hands clamped over her eyes; teenage Dawn is gaping at Carlos.) The black angel comes down from the pulpit and meets him in the aisle, followed by the riveted stares of everyone in the room with working eyes. "There you are, Carlos. What are you doing here, of all places? I thought you knew better."

The angelic tones echo in all corners of the room. Across the congregation, people gasp.

"A little tact, please, Erika?" hisses Carlos. "I'm here for the same reason people in Night Vale who are neither parents nor teachers go to PTA meetings. It's a nice social gathering, you get a chance to catch up with people, and there's punch and cookies afterward. What are you doing here? Is there some kind of emergency?"

"No, not at all," says Erika. "Josie and some of her friends were concerned that you wouldn't get your presents in time."

He makes a motion with his arms as if lifting something off of an invisible shelf, and a small stack of brightly-wrapped packages descends into visibility in his hands. Three of them are very tasteful. The fourth is a riot of sequined ribbons and velvet bows, which match neither each other nor the garishly-patterned paper.

Erika points proudly at one of the tasteful boxes. "I helped wrap this one."

"Yes, thank you, it looks lovely," says Carlos. "Do you think you could leave them at the house, please? I really appreciate the effort, it's just, you're interrupting the service."

The black angel glances around the room, takes in the current state of the crowd (someone up front has started sobbing), then bends and drops his voice to a whisper that only Carlos and the few people near him will be able to catch. "Why do you let it go on at all? You know nothing the Magisterium says is true. Why don't you tell them so?"

Carlos dearly hopes this angel is more understanding than the one who lashed out at Dotan. "Because I didn't come here to fight with people over this."

To his relief, Erika doesn't start glowing with the light of holy vengeance, or overwhelm Carlos' senses with the unthinkable vastness of a true angelic form. All he does is give Carlos a long look, then mutter, "Lyra Silvertongue would be so disappointed in what her students have become."

He spreads his wings, takes a step backward, and with a flutter of feathers slips through the borders of the world. Presents and all.

Carlos wishes he could disappear like that right now.

The priest has managed to hang on to his presence of mind, which is good, but also a healthy dose of personal humility, which means he won't do Carlos the favor of taking back control of the room. Instead he walks straight up the aisle (unsteady on his feet, his red-throated gáhkkor daemon waddling silently after him) to Carlos' row, microphone in hand. "There is nothing more for me to say tonight, brother Carlos. Speak! Tell us of what you have seen."

"I...don't know if I can," stammers Carlos, suddenly very loud with the microphone held in his face.

"You can!" exclaims the preacher. "Trust in the Lord, and He will speak through you!"

That isn't helping.

(Dr. Belacqua had a saying about this. It is difficult to tell someone the truth when a lie would be so much easier for them to understand.)

Carlos glances back at his family. Mike looks stunned, his maned-wolf daemon's fur all standing on end. There are tears on Papi's cheeks. Dawn's eyes are as big as saucers. Lena, the only one Carlos has already told about any of this, murmurs, "I've got your back, hermano."

(Dr. Belacqua would probably also say something like who ever told you life en't supposed to be difficult?)

"O-okay." Carlos takes the mic. The sound veers wildly as he gets used to handling it. "Um. First of all...as you can see, I am acquainted with some angels. Possibly not that specific one. It's hard to be sure, because most of the ones I've met have been invisible, or very close to it, which is what happens when that individual angel is not very strong. The fascinating thing here from an experimental-theology perspective is that they show up just as vividly in photograms developed with the Asriel emulsion regardless of...."

"Carlos!" hisses Lena.

"...I'm rambling, sorry. What is it?"

"You called this one by name," says his sister. "How?"

"Oh, that's easy! All the angels are named Erika. With a K." Carlos swallows. "They're pretty nice, for the most part. Some get impatient more easily, others stay mild-mannered. Most of them like having their pictures taken. They like our TV shows. The West Wing and Trimountaine Legal have been big hits. And there's one thing they all agree on...."

He's out in the middle of the aisle now, turning slowly, trying to cover everyone.

"They are all very insistent that, well, there is no God."

Erika has talked to him about this, clarifying the grief-stricken abbreviated set of details he got from Dotan. Now he just needs to get it across.

"So religious devotion tends to upset the angels, because it makes humans treat them like servants of a higher Authority, when they're free agents. It makes us treat them like they're important because their worth comes from God, when it doesn't. They matter for their own sakes. And so do we!"

Here comes the part of the speech he's done before. Farewell to Carlos Tongue-Tied, say hello to Carlos Well-Rehearsed.

"We matter because we're here. Because we're real. It's important to be good to each other, to love each other, to create things, to learn things and then pass them on — not because it's honoring God, or because it'll bring you closer to Heaven — did I mention that there's no Heaven, either? — but because it's the best thing for the people you're with, for right here! Where we are is always the most important place."

He stops turning, addresses the priest (now ashen-faced and leaning heavily on the back of a pew, but listening).

"You talked about not being able to 'pay the price' and needing someone else to pay it for us. Here's the truth: we were never in debt. You talk about the gift of going to be with God after we die, but no elsewhere is the gift. The life you're living right now is the reason to celebrate. Tell people that!"

Carlos catches his breath and thinks over what he just said.

"But I would appreciate it if you all waited a few days first," he adds. "I really don't want the press jumping on us with theological questions while I'm trying to have a quiet Christmas with the family."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The Ramirezes don't stay around long after that. As soon as the service dissolves, Carlos starts getting mobbed by tearful people begging him for answers he doesn't have...or angry people accusing him of being deceived by fallen angels and spreading the lies of the Devil. And Mamá (who is, blessedly, entirely on his side) can only shout so many of those down.

Most of the family is only too happy to help shield Carlos and get him out of there. The twins, being seven-year-old boys who didn't care about big theological questions in the first place, are disconsolate: "What about punch and cookies? Mommy, you said we'd get punch and cookies!"

"We'll have some at home, guys," says Mike, scooping up the curly-haired twin and nodding to Carlos to do the same with the straight-haired twin. The kids' daemons flutter around their heads as big dusky moths. "Besides, you have to get to bed soon anyway. You don't want Santa to skip Grandma and Grandpa's house because you're still awake, do you?"

"I bet there isn't really a Santa either," sulks the straight-haired twin. "Is there really a Santa, Uncle Carlos?"

Carlos' first impulse is to say no, but..."To be honest, I've never asked."

Mike's wife catches up to him and whispers something urgent in his ear. Their daemons, the okapi and the maned wolf, fall behind the rest of the group, murmuring to each other. It reminds Carlos that May is fairly religious, that Lena had guessed she wouldn't be happy if Carlos started bringing these things up....

But nothing comes of it, and Carlos makes it safely the car with Papi, Lena, and Lena's girls, without incident.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Back at the house, the eaves are decorated with a double row of multicolored lights that were definitely not there before, and there's an unfamiliar black bird perched intently on the front windowsill. Not a witch's daemon, just Erika, in the form of an alpine chough. "I fixed some broken bulbs for you. And changed the filter in your heating system. And there's something weird in your kitchen. Do you want me to help you out with it?"

(Carlos does, but first he has to take a few minutes to convince his family that common household maintenance is a pretty normal angel thing to do, and that, if Josie's experience is any indication, there isn't much of a market for angel-touched light bulbs.)

The "something weird" turns out to be Dawn's old cell phone, the screen of which is now warped and bubbled. "Librarians," says Carlos by way of explanation.

"Those creatures should never have been allowed to learn HTML," says Erika darkly. "I'll find a safe place to dispose of it."

He closes his claws around the edge of the Tupperware and takes off, fluttering through the borders between the worlds.

As Carlos is helping a couple of the other adults fix up some sugary drinks and even-more-sugary snacks, Mike pulls him aside. His daemon's tail is literally between her legs. "Carlos — about those things I said earlier —"

"Don't worry about it," says Carlos, and means it. "Life's too short."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Erika returns a few minutes later, and Mamá insists he stay for dessert.

When the angel shifts back into the ten-foot-tall humanoid form, though, Mamá also insists on providing him with a sheet to wrap around himself like a toga. Apparently the answer to "what kind of clothes could an angel wear?" is "well, if you want to eat at Mrs. Ramirez's table, there had better be something."

The baby has been put to bed, and Lucas has disappeared somewhere to get back to his World of Warcraft; everyone else sits around the dining room table and peppers Erika with questions. Lots of them overlap with the ones Carlos and his team asked at first — in fact, it turns out this Erika was one of the angels in that very first photogram from the original town meeting.

"Really!" exclaims Carlos, when he hears. "I didn't recognize you. Congratulations on getting less transparent."

The twins are mostly too busy scarfing down well-frosted cookies to talk, but they get a couple questions in. Is Santa real? (No, he's a government conspiracy.) Is the Easter Bunny real? (No, although rabbits in general are not what they seem.) How about the Tooth Fairy? (Erika needs this one explained, and declares that it's a gruesome idea...but does not, Carlos notices, confirm or deny.)

Young Rosa delicately scrubs chocolatl smears from around her mouth and goes for something more pointed. "Was Jesus real?"

"There was a real person that your Jesus stories are based on," says the angel. "But most of the stories themselves are made up."

"I thought so," grumbles Rosa. Her daemon, coral-snake-formed, twirls in a bracelet around her wrist as she reaches for one of the Hispania Nova marshmallow lollipops.

"Did anyone ever really die and come back?" asks teenage Dawn. Her jeweled lizard daemon is perched next to her plate.

Of course not, thinks Carlos, sipping his eggnog. That's obvious, right? If there's no afterlife in the first place, nowhere to go after death, then there's nowhere to come back from.

"There was one person from your world," says Erika, "who went into the world of the dead, and returned alive."

Carlos nearly chokes.

"I don't understand," protests Mamá. "My Carlos, he told us earlier there was no Heaven. That's what you said, isn't it, tesoro?"

The black angel looks at Carlos with interest. "So you finally told them the truth? Just these," with a wave at the family around the table, "or more than these?"

"I, ah, may have spelled it out for everyone at church." Carlos is embarrassed enough that Isaña half-curls up by his heel. "And tonight that means everyone, not just the Sunday regulars. Tell us what you mean by world of the dead."

"Nothing like the ones you tell stories about. It was artificial; it never should have existed in the first place. And it was so not a heaven — it was created to be a prison — a trap to capture souls at the end of their lives. But of course back in the day, we, angels, knew almost nothing about it. Everything we've learned has been since its power was broken."

"How? By who?"

Erika frowns. "Don't you know?"

Carlos has no idea.

— and then he does, the knowledge hitting like a thunderbolt, freezing him in place. Of course he knows. There's only one possible answer, only one person it ever could have been.

"Lyra Belacqua."

"Lyra Silvertongue," agrees/corrects the angel. "Would you like the story?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

When Lyra and Pan were young and the War was raging (says the angel), they learned that they needed to travel to the realm of the dead. There were allies Lyra had already lost that she needed to speak to.

At the time Lyra was in the company of her truest companion, Will Parry....

...what? No, Will's daemon was not named Moxie. Where would you get an idea like that?

Ah, TV. That explains it.

In fact, Will came from a different world, where humans kept their souls inside themselves instead of having daemons. And he possessed an item, a knife, that had come from a third world entirely. Like Lyra's alethiometer, the knife was created by humans, but had a power and a reach that its creators never fully understood — in this case, to cut so precisely that it could make doorways between the worlds.

Will had learned from an angel that the realm of the dead was just another world, so he set out to cut a door that would reach it. At last he and Lyra came to a world full of ghosts, all walking in one direction. Other living people had come this far by accident before. By following the ghosts, Lyra and Will found a small settlement of these, camped out with their deaths.

Their deaths, I said. All of you have one, though in a world like this, they're no more visible than Will's daemon. In that camp they became visible for everyone.

...they aren't easy to describe. Sort of skeletal, you might say? But not shocking or eye-catching, the way an actual skeleton would be. Sort of like a shadow, too. They're very polite. Mild-mannered. Don't seem to take up any space at all.

Anyway, the people living in this world were suspicious of Lyra and her companions. But she made up a story that won them over, and finally one of them explained that her own death, if she could find it, would be able to lead them where all the ghosts had gone.

Now, Lyra and Will had two other companions at this point, spies from the front lines of the war who had been sent to follow them: little humanoids as tall as an adult man's hand....

Yes, the dragonfly-riders! I guess TV is good for something.

These spies were more capable in battle than their size suggested, but they couldn't defend themselves against Will's knife. Lyra had only allowed them to come along because the alethiometer told her they would be necessary. Well, they had reluctantly followed along with Lyra's plans up until this point, but this was too much for them, and one of them confronted Lyra and ordered her to turn back. Said this was a fool's errand, an impossible task.

I can see Carlos has some idea of how well that went over.

Of course Lyra wasn't afraid. She asked the spy how, exactly, he was going to make her do anything. Maybe if he was fast enough, he could use his own weapons to poison her before Will stabbed him, but so what? She was trying to get to the land of the dead anyway! All he would accomplish was making sure she couldn't come back afterward, and she didn't care about that. If giving up her life was what it took to carry out her mission, she was ready for it.

And by doing all this, by inviting her own death close, Lyra found it standing beside her.

...What do you "get", child?

Oh, yes, that certainly fits. Lyra would have known it, and turned it on its head. One who knows how to die cannot be forced.

Her Pantalaimon was horrified, though, because he realized where their death would lead them, and what it meant. There's one final shore, you see, and daemons can't cross it. For Will and the two little spies, that meant stepping onto a boat and not knowing what they would be leaving behind until it was too late, but for Lyra and Pan it meant her going, and him staying, and each of them watching the other as the distance grew....

I won't dwell on it. You can imagine.

The boat carried them to the heart of the land of the dead, which is also not easy to describe, because there isn't much there. Colorless ground with dull features, a dull light coming from nowhere in particular, and, at the time, an endless procession of trapped ghosts — insubstantial, never changing, cold, missing their daemons, terrorized by the guards....

I said it was a prison, didn't I? Of course there were guards. They caused plenty of trouble for Lyra and Will, but of course they were only really prepared to deal with ghosts, not living people. And Will had his knife.

The ghosts were fascinated. When Lyra told them her story — the real one, this time, not a made-up one — they were happy to pass the word on, and it wasn't long before her allies had heard the news, and were making their way toward her party. Even the guards ended up being drawn to Lyra. Who wouldn't, in a place like that? It was the first time for thousands of years that anything had happened.

So Lyra was able to speak with her friends. And Will was able to cut a window straight out of that world, an exit from the prison, for them and all the ghosts to leave through.

The guards sure didn't like that idea! But one of the spies, seeing how Lyra's stories energized them, convinced them to ask for stories from the ghosts, too. And in return, they would show the ghosts, including the new ones who are always arriving, the way to the exit.

While all this was going on, the part of himself Will had left behind became a physical daemon in her own right, and she and Pantalaimon returned to the world of the living by another way. She had no name at first, but eventually the witch Serafina Pekkala gave her the name Kirjava — not Moxie, ugh, I have no idea how you humans come up with these things — and guided her and Pan back to their Will and Lyra, and...I'm skipping over a lot of things, but let's just say they lived happily ever after, shall we?

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Everyone in the room is holding their daemon a little tighter as Erika finishes the story. Carlos knows he isn't the only one who teared up at some point.

"Then Nature, delivered from every haughty lord, / And forthwith free, is seen to do all things / Herself and through herself of own accord, / Rid of all gods," says Erika solemnly. "That world still exists, but it's only a waystation that the dead happen to visit briefly. Nothing in it for the living to fear."

"Except that there are some kind of guards we need to...tell stories to," points out Lena's husband. One of his hands is intertwined with Lena's; the other is curled around his vervet daemon's.

Erika shrugs. "Live your life for its own sake, and the stories will take care of themselves. They don't need to be any special kind of story, they just need to be true." He looks over at Carlos. "I need to be flying out soon. Do you have anything you'd like me to carry back to Night Vale?"

"I...bought some presents," stammers Carlos. "But I haven't gotten around to wrapping them yet."

The angel makes a shooing motion at him. "So make it quick!"

Carlos makes a break for the stairs. His purchases are still in a disorganized heap next to his air mattress; he sinks into a crouch to scoop them up, then has to pause and catch his breath.

Isaña meets his eyes.

She's the one who says it. "Brave like Lyra and Pan, huh."

Carlos chokes on something between a laugh and a sob. All this time they've been using it as a mantra, and they've had no idea. Dr. Belacqua isn't unique in having put that kind of distance between herself and her daemon, other people from this world have done that much, but he could never — they could never —

(And to think, they've been admiring her for clashing with a vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium for which all records have been destroyed. That's nothing. Lyra Belaqua fixed death.)

He pulls himself together while picking off price tags. The latest seasons of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones for Josie. A bunch of specialty anbaric parts for Steve Carlsberg (Carlos doesn't know what any of them are for, and figures it's safer if he doesn't ask). Chocolatl for young Renée and her classmates. One 3-D Harvard-scenery magnet and one scarf embroidered with the school crest for Cecil.

"Stay over there in the dining room, Erika!" he calls as he brings the whole mess into the kitchen, along with a spare roll of wrapping paper. "Some of this is for you!"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The angel takes Carlos' watch too, promising to drop it off in the experimental theologians' chapel, and assuring him that the mystery grey blob won't wreak any havoc while it's there.

People try to ask Carlos more questions after Erika leaves, but at this point there's nothing he can share that they don't already know. Unless they want to take a look at some fascinating graphs he's prepared tracking the effects of —

They don't. (Nobody is ever as interested in graphs as he is.)

Carlos goes to sleep in peace, and dreams of los angelitos.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Christmas morning!

The kids tear into their stockings, then their presents, with unfiltered glee; even Dawn and Lucas aren't too teenager-y to unironically enjoy getting stuff. Papi wraps up in his new traditional Night Vale rabbit-fur blanket. Mike and May have a brief whispered argument before putting on some of the CDs of carols they just unwrapped.

Literally everyone in Carlos' family got him novelty experimental-theology coffee mugs. They know him so well.

His gifts from Night Vale are a little more varied. From Renée Carlsberg, a set of cute handmade paper-maché snowmen, decorated with beads and pipe cleaners and a generous amount of hot glue. From Steve, a handwritten (!) set of instructions on how to use the anbaric jammers embedded within the paper-maché to temporarily disable surveillance devices, including those of the Sheriff's secret police.

Cecil's present is, presciently enough, a watch. Sort of. It's a wide spangly cuff with a fuzzy inner lining, decorated with silver charms and what appear to be hand-beaded flowers, but it does have a little clock face woven into the beadwork, so technically it counts.

Josie sent him something a little more tasteful: an electrum pendant, with a leather cord and a fossilized insect embedded in the stone. Carlos passes it around the room to see if anyone recognizes the insect; nobody does, although Mamá is more intrigued by the source anyway. "Who's this Josie, cielito mío? Here she is sending you beautiful presents and you haven't even told your family about her?"

"She's older than you are, Mamá," says Carlos mildly. "We met because she's a friend of the angels, so her help has been invaluable for our research."

"Ah."

The twins come crashing across the room, stomping through discarded wrapping paper, staging an epic battle with their brand-new plastic spaceships. Carlos ducks as their daemons swoop past in the forms of birds of prey, then sits back against the wall under the window. He loves his nephews, but he's glad he isn't the one who has to parent them.

"Have you met anyone...let's say, closer to your age, in town?" asks Lena from the loveseat, where she and her fruit-bat daemon are sitting with Wes and his vervet. She treads carefully around pronouns, the way she's done for more than a decade now, no matter how much Carlos has insisted that it isn't an issue because he's not dating anyone of any gender.

"I've been focusing on work, hermanita," says Carlos automatically. It's his stock answer. Comes easy as breathing by this point.

"A man with a diligent work ethic is very attractive to the right kind of woman," declares Mamá. "Surely someone in that little town of yours has noticed."

Carlos hesitates.

"Someone has noticed!" exclaims his mother. Her raccoon daemon claps his paws in delight.

"Someone has a crush, yes," admits Carlos, splaying a hand over Isaña's plates. He's not going to get any better opportunity to bring up the topic than this. Even if it does involve Trying To Explain Cecil. "And...it's this local news guy on the radio that everyone listens to, who also talks way too much about his personal life on-air, so everyone in town pretty much found out instantly."

He takes a sip of eggnog (from his new Stand Back While I Do Physics To It mug), trying to look casual while he waits for someone to take the cue.

Lena helps him out. "Is this guy...cute?"

"Sort of." Carlos makes a face. "He's weird, is what he is. I don't mean that as an insult! It's just, well, as an example, the last time I saw him, he was wearing a velvet suit with rickrack trim, and these open-toed sneakers with bobbles sewn on. You get the picture. But he's been very nice, very cooperative with the whole team...there are some fascinating phenomena going on in the area of the radio station, and he's made it a lot easier for us to study them. And he's fascinating too, from a theological standpoint. His daemon settled as an animal species from another world, which gives you some idea. We're still trying to figure out how that happened."

Isaña nudges him in the leg, and Carlos takes the hint to quit babbling about work...and about Cecil.

It ends up being Lucas, of all people, who pushes the conversation forward. Against all odds, he's still in the room, fighting with the settings on some gadget he just unwrapped. He leans toward the loveseat where his parents are sitting (and behind which his addax daemon is resting, not hidden, but somewhat sheltered from the crowd) and says, in a poor excuse for a whisper that carries clear across the room, "Dad, is Uncle Carlos gay?"

Wes shushes him. "Your uncle's one true love is experimental theology, buddy."

"That too," says Carlos.

Time for another casual sip of eggnog. Or maybe several.

A cascade of reactions happen all at once. Lena gets up and comes over to give Carlos a hug, which is appreciated, but at the same time her bat daemon nips Isaña's ear and whispers, "Why didn't you trust us?" While Isaña is trying to explain, May does another bit of urgent murmuring to Mike, and ends up pulling him out of the room — but not before he catches Carlos' eye and mouths Don't worry. And young Rosa, who has been busily drawing something with her new set of multicolor gel pens, looks wide-eyed over the top of her sketchbook like her uncle is some kind of mystical fantasy creature and breathes, "Do you have a boyfriend?"

"No boyfriend," Carlos tells her. "Not right now, and probably not any time soon...and I haven't been hiding any in the past, either." (He doesn't feel dishonest about not mentioning that string of men he kissed. Unlike aerodock security, his family doesn't need to know.) "When I say I'm focusing on work...Mamá?" He switches from English to Spanish. "No, Mamá, it's all right, don't cry!"

"Do you have to do this, cariño mío?" asks his mother in a choked voice, using the corner of a blanket to dab at her eyes. "It's going to be so hard for you."

She's cradling her raccoon daemon in her lap, so Carlos doesn't try to give a supportive hug of his own, just kneels next to the arm of her chair and clasps one of her hands in his. "It isn't. I promise, Mamá, you don't have to worry about me. Not because of this."

"Don't you tell me not to worry, cielito! I watch the news. I see the kinds of things that happen. Even to nice clean-cut white boys in suits and ties, it can happen."

Carlos is glad they're doing this part in Spanish. Hopefully the younger kids won't follow it well enough to get scared about what their grandmother means. "The town I'm living in now isn't like that. I told you, the guy on the radio is very open about being attracted to men, and he's their local celebrity — Night Vale loves him. And there are others in the area, too...there's an ice cream shop run by two very nice women who went to Upper California and got a civil union...I promise, people giving me trouble over this is the last thing you have to worry about."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The rest of the fallout comes in bits and pieces over the course of the day.

Carlos gets a moment alone with Lena to convince her that he never lied to her about his sexuality on purpose. "I was telling you exactly the same things I was telling Isaña. We didn't notice that we had any interest in men until very recently."

"That does sound like something you would do," sighs Lena, as her fruit-bat daemon does some apologetic grooming of Isaña's fur. "Can I ask what tipped you off?"

"Random incident at a bowling alley," says Carlos with a shrug. "If I end up in any actual relationships, I'll let you know."

He gets a separate moment alone with Mike, who implores him not to let May's distaste upset him. "She agreed not to tell the boys there's anything wrong with you. I know there's nothing wrong with you. But we're having the twins sleep in the den with us tonight."

Carlos knew there was going to be friction with Mike's wife, but this still stings. "What does she think I'll do? They're seven."

"You might convince them not to say their prayers," points out Mike. "I'll work on her, all right? She's a wonderful, sweet person, but she has some preconceptions, and it's going to take more than a night to bring her around. These past couple of days haven't exactly been easy on her."

And since she hasn't reacted by trying to jump off any cliffs, Carlos should probably cut her some slack for being irrational and uncompromising in ways that are less likely to traumatize the children. "All right. I'll leave her to you."

He sends Azalea an email, wanting his baby sister to hear the news directly from him instead of getting it through the Ramirez family gossip circuit. (About being gay, that is. He's probably better off letting other witnesses spread the "an angel came by to personally visit Carlos, and happened to mention that religion is a lie" part of the story.)

She writes back to say that she's surprised, because he isn't anything like her gay friends, but he's one of her top two favorite brothers and she wants him to be happy. Carlos decides to count it as a win.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos hefts his luggage into the trunk of his parents' car, gives Mamá a goodbye kiss on both cheeks, and climbs with Isaña into the passenger seat. Papi is driving them to the train station, his shelduck daemon perched in the scoop between the front seats.

Carlos' father is a man of few words. He's barely said a dozen of them to Carlos all vacation, even with all the revelations Carlos has been throwing around. It's a sharp contrast to Mamá's extensive fussing — and while it doesn't mean he loves his children any less, it does make him hard to read sometimes.

So it gives Carlos a start when, during a lull at a red light, Papi breaks the silence.

"These angelos," he says, without preamble. "They watch over you, son?"

"Sí, Papi. They protect the whole town." If they watch over anyone in particular it's Josie, but Carlos is certainly safer thanks to angelic intervention. They closed the terrifying Dust-draining window in Niton Canyon; they closed the one associated with the shrieking sunsets in Old Town Night Vale.

"Good," says his father. "Your mother's been worried."

And that's that.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

At the Trimountaine aerodock while Carlos and Isaña are waiting for their flight, the TVs start playing a news item about the possibly-angelic visitor who descended on one small town on Christmas Eve, complete with shaky cell-phone footage of Erika. Whoever took the video was near the back of the sanctuary, so Carlos' face never appears...just his first name, his profession, his voice, and a great shot of his hair.

And then the anchor says "...has been identified as Dr. Carlos Ramirez, a researcher affiliated with Harvard University," while the image pans across a photo Carlos recognizes from the school's publicity materials: himself standing at the front of a lecture hall, making some animated gesture, while a black-and-white panorama of the Northern Lights developed with the Asriel emulsion is projected onto the wall behind him.

The photo is breathtaking. It's one of the original images created by Lord Asriel himself before his disappearance, where the borders between worlds are so thin that you can see towers and domes of an otherworldly city in the middle of the aurora, visible by the Rusakov particles from this world that cluster around them. If there's any justice in the world, people will be caught up looking at that, and not remember what Carlos looks like at all.

Since the world is not just, Carlos slinks off to the nearest duty-free shop and buys the most concealing hat he can find.

It's enough to keep him unrecognized until the plane takes off. Someone does try to approach him during his layover in St. Louis; he shakes his head and repeats désolé, je ne parle pas français until they give up.

He dozes off on the final flight, and when he wakes up during the descent the cabin is almost empty. The only other passengers are a woman with two heads, a group of albino City Council messenger children wordlessly showing each other vacation photos, some guy in a tan jacket, and a couple of hooded spectres all the way in the back. Carlos gets a twinge of recognition at the tan jacket, but the man's face doesn't look familiar, so he shrugs it off and lets it slide right out of his head.

The flight attendant, who has gills on either side of her neck and a vibrant green dragonfly daemon perched on her shoulder, sees all the passengers off with a smile, but lights up when she spots Carlos. "Congratulations on living through Christmas, Dr. Perfecto!"

(If home is where everybody knows your name, then what does that make Night Vale?)

Carlos thanks her from the heart, and starts humming as he rolls his carry-on toward customs. There's no dark tunnel in this direction, just a nearly-shear thirty-foot drop that requires maneuvering his suitcase down way too many narrow stairs while answering questions about which countries he's visited and what kind of materials he's bringing back. At last there's just another strange blank room between him and the baggage claim.

"I need you to say every person you ever kissed," orders a child's voice out of one of the ceiling grates.

Carlos takes a deep breath. "Chloe Baker, Rosalyn Torres...Colden, Jack, Joe, Jeff."

Silence.

"I was flight 2232 in from St. Louis," adds Carlos uncertainly, as Isaña paces around by his feet. "Which carousel —"

"You were only gone for a week!" exclaims the voice.

"It was a busy week!" yells Carlos. "And I do not have to justify my romantic history to a kid hiding in the ceiling!"

The child sighs. "Carousel 5. Welcome back to Night Vale."

Chapter Text

When Carlos gets back to work, his inbox is overflowing.

For several minutes he seriously considers deleting all of it. Then he calls Josie. "Are you free today? I know we didn't have a visit scheduled, but I need to talk to Erika. Um, I haven't had a chance to do any cooking, but I can owe you."

"Come right over, dear," says Josie warmly. "I have bowling league in the evening — can't miss it, our big tournament is at the end of the month! — but until then, you're welcome to stay as long as you like."

Carlos hadn't been consciously angling to get invited for the day, but he jumps at the offer. He packs up his laptop, tells the others on his team (who are variously jealous, sympathetic, and relieved that his name is the only one attached to most of the news reports circling back home) where he's going, and runs to catch the bus.

The witch greets him at her front door, leaning heavily on her cane. Carlos doesn't know why she chooses to walk sometimes and fly others, but he senses it would be rude to ask. "Come on in! Seems like it's been quieter than usual without your little team running around town. Do you like scones? I just took a batch out of the oven. It's that recipe Steve Carlsberg always uses, but can't ever seem to get right, poor boy."

"I would love some," says Carlos. "And, ah, thank you for the present." He touches the electrum pendant hanging around his neck (with a bare-wristed hand. He's a little more hesitant about wearing Cecil's gift).

"It was my pleasure. Erika said he had a little trouble getting them to you, but it all worked out in the end?"

"Um," says Carlos. "It hasn't really ended yet."

With the help of some scones and fresh-squeezed lemonade, he summons the strength to dive back into his email. Any idiot can find his professional address on the university website, and apparently a lot of idiots have. He makes a couple of passes to delete the ones from random people informing him that he'll go to Hell for blasphemy, the ones from newspapers and blogs seeking quotes, the ones from atheist organizations who apparently want to hire him as a motivational speaker.

There's also a stack of résumés, which he sorts into their own folder to look at later. Apparently there's no shortage of professionals who think the "cursed field project" sounds right up their alley. Some of them might even be worth bringing on.

...Assuming they still have the grant money to support new experimental theologians.

"One of the university's donors has pulled their funding for the year," says Carlos grimly. He's ended up in one of Josie's ragged armchairs, socks propped on the footrest and laptop resting on his knees, with Isaña curled up on a cushion beside him. "Not just for our project...for anything else it would have gone to. A couple more are specifying that none of their money go to us. And...if I'm reading this right, someone else is specifying that all their money go to us, but they aren't a heavy-enough hitter to make up for the loss."

"Money," snorts Josie. She's in the armchair across from him, knitting something that has, so far, five sleeves. Her own daemon, Ojansi, is nowhere to be seen. "Never use the stuff if I can help it. If a witch needs something, another witch will give it to her. That's how we've always done it."

"Most humans aren't altruistic enough to make that work out."

"Who's pulling their money?" asks a disembodied voice.

Carlos looks with a start in the direction of the coffee table. Nothing next to it but empty air. "Sorry, Erika, didn't see you there."

"You still don't see me now," points out Erika. "Who's pulling their money?"

"Some businessman. Or politician, maybe. The kind of person the Magisterium can lean on. The school will stand by us no matter what...I hope...but they can't force individuals to keep giving them donations."

"Do you have these individuals' names?" pushes Erika. "Or maybe phone numbers?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos has no idea what Erika says on the phone to their biggest donor, but about an hour later a new email pops into the top of his inbox. Most of their private funding is safe, it says. Also, the chemistry building on the Allston campus is going to get a complete renovation on one wing, on the condition that it be renamed the Hirsti Wing. Does he know anything about this?

He replies, truthfully, that he does not. Only after the message has been sent does he say to Erika, "Please, just tell me you didn't use any kind of mind control on him."

"All I said was that our kind would smile on him if he did a few simple things," says the angel innocently. Even though she's one of the totally-invisible ones, Carlos could swear he can hear her grinning.

The day goes much more smoothly after that. He finishes a section on the paper he's been writing with Gerald (proposing a new model for the structure of Rusakov particles with respect to anbaromagnetic field theory), and does a round of proofreading on the latest draft of the one he's been writing with Fleur (examining the properties of electrum as an optical Rusakov conductor, and suggesting practical applications). At last he starts weeding through résumés, just a shallow pass, filtering out the ones with such thin experience in the fields they need that it isn't worth looking deeper.

Josie's scones, by the way, are delicious. He's never had any objection to the taste of Steve's (and even Cecil, who denounces them on the radio, scarfs them down in person like they're going out of style), but this batch blows them out of the water.

"We might be able to fill all four spots with qualified people, assuming we don't start bleeding donations again," says Carlos quietly to his daemon, after he's set aside a dozen that look genuinely promising.

"We still want to keep some space open for grad students next semester, right?" asks Isaña.

That openness has always been part of their goals for the Night Vale project. They never would have finished their own thesis (on the possible use of Rusakov particles to ameliorate the effects of forced human-daemon separation) if they'd been locked out of key research opportunities for not already having a Ph.D. under their belt.

"Just because you fill all your spaces now doesn't mean you won't have space by next semester, dears," says Josie sweetly. It looks like she's well into knitting sleeve #6.

Carlos grimaces, but she's not wrong and they know it, so he just knocks twice on the wooden paneling of the wall behind his head. "We'll have to leave at least one open, and hope —"

He stops short. There's a very familiar name standing out in the middle of his résumé folder. Which probably means it's some kind of stunt or scam...but he clicks the message anyway, and it was sent from a genuine ThPhys.Uni-Heidelberg.DE email address.

"What is it?" asks Isaña. "What's going on?"

"That depends," says Carlos, somewhat dazed. "Think we should hire Keith Köhler?"

Isaña springs three feet in the air with astonishment.

"My, that was an impressive jump," says Josie. "You know this person, Carlos?"

"Not in person, but I've seen his work. And I've seen him give talks, obviously — any time you go to an interdisciplinary conference on alternate-world physics, he's probably going to be there. He...hasn't actually won a Nobel Prize, but he's been one of the odds-on favorites in about five different years."

"Has he now! It sounds like your project is getting a reputation."

"It sounds like our project has a spot filled," adds Isaña.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

With the new Rusakov meters running smoothly and constantly, the six remaining experimental theologians are getting more work done than ever.

Carlos gets back to the chapel one evening after a beer-and-Corean-food run and finds the main room wallpapered with photograms of the Glow Cloud and its child, half developed normally and half with the Asriel emulsion. Both entities change color from photo to photo, and the photos that show Rusakov particles render them threaded with veins of bright gold, turning the walls into a breathtaking neon rainbow.

"I don't remember taking these," says Brad sheepishly, "but apparently we got the standard research-subject consent forms filled out and signed, and, you know, wow, right?"

Gerald, Henriette, and Adriana spend a whole consecutive week taking intensive measurements around Point E, the house that doesn't exist. The take-away is that it's probably associated with a long-open portal, but nobody can be sure what kind. Into another world? Into the Void? They would have to get a lot closer to find out.

"I'll give you five dollars to ring the doorbell," says Gerald to Carlos at the end of the week. "You don't even have to stay and find out who, or what, answers! Just press it and run."

"I do experimental theology for its own sake, not for the rewards," says Carlos. "Also, if your next step is to try bribing people with less professional integrity, you should know that five dollars doesn't go as far as it used to."

Fleur startles him one morning by catching him in the still-dark kitchen, her dark-feathered grackle daemon blending into the shadows. "I think we should make a plan to study that other place in more detail," she says softly. "You know, Point D. The one we can't think too long about. Even if we don't get within five hundred feet of the walls, there's a lot we could do."

Carlos had been not-thinking about the dog park recently himself, but didn't want to be the one to bring it up. "Okay. But we should talk about it as little as possible, for municipal-safety reasons."

"That doesn't have to be a problem," says Fleur. "I can put together a complete draft on my own. If that's all right."

Considering how well their research is going, Carlos knows something's bound to go catastrophically wrong soon. He just hopes they can ride this streak of luck for a while longer. "When you finish, let me know."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

He pulls each researcher into his office, one by one, to look over his top six candidates for team members. They're all more than qualified; he just wants to make sure none of them are secretly bitter rivals of someone on the current team, or anything.

It isn't encouraging when Henriette, his next-most-senior teammate and the first person he asks for feedback, looks at the list and grimaces.

"It's nothing," she says when Carlos presses, running a hand through her alpine-marmot daemon's thick fur. "Of course you have to hire Köhler. He's a groundbreaking biophysicist, he's personally studied with the alethiometer at Heidelberg...he could probably juggle all these questions we're raising about otherworldly biology single-handedly. Just don't be surprised when the petty-cash box starts running empty more often, and the bottles in our recycling bin seem to be piling up faster."

"Because he has a drinking problem?"

"Because he'll give me a drinking problem." Henriette sighs. "He's from that particular strain of older male experimental theologian who seem personally offended that they don't control the field any more. The first time I published a paper as Henriette Gaillard, he wrote a review saying, and I quote, Ms. Gaillard shows promise as a researcher, but lacks the theoretical rigor of her brother."

It takes Carlos a moment to put two and two together. "He thought Henri Gaillard was the name of your brother."

Henriette nods. "A story which got a lot funnier once I had enough scholarly credibility not to worry about what he thought."

"And which might get less funny if you have to do field research with him around." Carlos drums his fingers on Isaña's shell. "Be honest with me, Henriette...is it worth it? Köhler may be a fantastic candidate on paper, but if he's going to be a problem for at least half the team, he's going to have to pull a hell of a lot of weight to make up for it. Especially since the rest of us have six months of experience surviving Night Vale. As far as I'm concerned, that's worth at least an honorary degree each."

"You realize that if you turn him down, people back home are going to think you're insane."

"If there's one thing I learned over Christmas," says Carlos dryly, "it's that I can survive having a few people question my sanity."

His colleague relaxes a little. "You too?"

"My sister had to remind me that you can write things with markers. And I spent ten minutes in a Subway restaurant trying to find a secret escape hatch or tunnel, until I noticed that people were also able to leave through the entrance."

"I tried to tell my kids the hilarious story about how you blackmailed a secret police officer by threatening to tell Cecil she'd recommended you get a haircut. It didn't really translate."

Carlos allows himself a sheepish grin. Henriette smiles back, understanding.

"Hire Köhler," she adds. "That's my official recommendation. He can't be any harder to handle than feral plastic bags."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

John Peters (you know, the farmer) finds a strange door in the desert, so Carlos and Adriana drive out to take some readings. The door looks like oak, attracts Rusakov particles like a manmade object, and, every once in a while, makes a sound like there's somebody knocking on one side. It's also fastened by several deadbolts and chains on either side, although those didn't appear with it, but were added by the farmer over the past day or so.

"Definitely a portal between worlds," says Carlos.

"If we let whoever's knocking come through, we could do tests on them," says Adriana.

"If you folks think I'm undoing any of these here locks, you're greener than I thought," says John Peters. His daemon, a dun-colored Texas longhorn, switches her tail in sympathetic irritation.

They drive back into Central Night Vale debating whether to co-opt one of the handheld Rusakov generators from their array and install it out by the door, whether to just call it Point F and add it to their list of local points of interest, whether it would be productive or insane to sneak back out at some point and break the locks. Nobody wants another pterodactyl incident.

As Carlos is thinking out loud about the kinds of precautions they could take to minimize the danger of whatever might come through, Adriana interrupts: "Why are there no people on the road?"

Carlos realizes with a start that she's right. No other cars moving around them. Nobody visible on the sidewalks. This can't be good. "Turn on the radio."

It's early, but Cecil's show seems to come on whenever it wants, and Adriana switches on NVCR just in time to hear him shouting, "RUN! RUN! FORGET YOUR CHILDREN AND LEAVE BEHIND THE WEAK! RUN!"

Carlos' heart nearly stops.

"We have contacted those experts who have not already gone underground or changed their identity, and have been told that Street Cleaners focus on heat and movement, and so the best strategy is to be dead already," intones Cecil from the speakers.

The hybrid's tires squeal as Carlos slams on the brakes. "Out of the car," he says. "We'll come back for it later."

He switches off the engine and jumps out, taking nothing but the keys. Adriana grabs her iguana daemon and follows. Isaña is fast enough to keep up on her own four feet as they run to the door of the nearest establishment, which happens to be the Pinkberry.

It's locked.

The OPEN sign is still glowing in the window, but there's nobody visible inside.

Carlos starts running for the next building over, chapel coat flying in the wind behind him. Adriana yells his name, bringing him up short. "No point!" she calls. "They'll be locked. Forget the buildings. Mission Grove Park is a block away. We can get away from the streets!"

"Good thinking," says Carlos, and starts running after her instead.

The whole block is eerily quiet. Have the Street Cleaners been here already? Carlos clamps down on his impulse to do some tests, and their legs carry them from cement sidewalk to neatly-trimmed grass, past a Shape they do not acknowledge or speak about, into the cover of the trees.

Now, which way to turn? "If they're attracted to movement, we have to pick a spot and stick with it," pants Carlos.

"If they're attracted to heat, we should avoid the Eternal Animal Pyre," adds Adriana.

Carlos scans the area around them once more. The playground is too open, not enough cover. The wheat and wheat by-products quarantine area poses too much of a risk of locking them up forever. "How do you feel about climbing trees?"

He ends up boosting the grad student onto the lowest branch of a gnarled oak tree. Her iguana is in his element here, sharp claws carrying him rapidly up into the branches, but Carlos has to untuck his shirt and knot it into a makeshift hammock in order to bring Isaña along. The trunk is thick, the branches sturdy; they get about fifteen feet off the ground, hands and knees scraped on the bark, before they can't risk climbing farther.

Silence, except for the two of them catching their breaths and straining their ears for some clue about what kind of menace has descended on their little town.

"I could check the radio again," whispers Adriana.

"How?"

She pats the pocket of her khakis. "Got an FM tuner that hooks up to my phone."

That's brilliant. Carlos should look into buying a set for the whole team. "Do it."

NVCR, as played over the phone's tinny speakers, is less helpful this time around. They catch Cecil in the middle of a paid ad, which for some reason involves describing different types of silence, and Carlos is in no mood to hear Cecil pontificate about the soft wet silence of post-coital breath-catching. Then a siren starts wailing somewhere to the east, and Adriana panics and switches it back off.

They wait.

In the distance, a vehicle rumbles.

Carlos clings to the rough bark. Isaña trembles against his chest.

The noise gets closer. At first he wonders if he's imagining things out of paranoia, but no, it's getting clearer too: the whirring and groaning of industrial-sized brushes, the spray of water (or, more likely in this desert climate, high-pressure air) against asphalt, the thrum of an engine. It sounds exactly like a street-cleaning truck.

Carlos waits, heart in his mouth. The wind rustles the leaves around them. Adriana breathes something with the cadence of a prayer: not a supplication to a listening Authority, just a self-calming chant.

It's so close.

The Street Cleaners have reached the very road Adriana and Carlos fled.

And, come to think of it...the noise sounds like nothing more than a street-cleaning truck.

Through the foliage Carlos can barely see anything past the borders of the park, but the whole town is so still that when he catches a glimpse of motion, there's only one thing it could be. The off-white bulk of a truck chugs past, getting louder, louder, louder...then slightly less loud, then quieter, quieter, quieter as it goes on its way.

That was somewhat anticlimactic.

"Radio," whispers Carlos, as the sound fades.

Adriana, who looks as confused as he feels, fumbles with the buttons and switches it back on.

"...as no information can get through the barricades and seals that are keeping us safe within our broadcasting bunker," Cecil is saying, in a terse, urgent tone. "Instead, we offer the following impressionistic list of what we believe is happening outside our secure perimeter. Screaming. A slow movement downwards. The crunch of items made of wood...and items not made of wood."

Is it just Carlos, or is absolutely none of that happening?

"A smell like rotting seaweed, or a poisoned ocean." Cecil's voice keeps getting deeper, more stressed. "The song La Bamba, only faster. You know that feeling when you realize you're not alone? Only more so. Screaming. Screaming. Screaming."

"Is this some kind of joke?" bursts out Adriana.

"A test, maybe," says Carlos. "Like a fire drill. Put on the sirens, run an emergency broadcast, make sure everyone can get to safety on time."

"We've never seen everyone in town hunker down like this even for a real emergency," puts in Isaña. "They must think it's serious. Which means Cecil thinks it's serious — or — or maybe Cecil just wants them to think it's serious?"

Adriana's daemon flicks his long tail in agitation. "We haven't done an emergency check-in. We should do that."

Carlos sends the usual mass text to Brad, Fleur, Henriette, and Gerald. The replies come back one by one, all variations on a theme: Town-wide emergency? I haven't noticed anything.

They're still trying to figure it out when the sirens die away.

Carlos and Adriana clamber down from the oak tree and venture slowly, cautiously, toward the edge of Mission Grove Park. There are people on the streets now: coming out of buildings, blinking in wonder at the early-evening sky. Amazement and relief turn into joy; someone lets out a whoop and runs down the (clean) street, and other people laugh, tear up, pull each other into hugs. A woman with bright green hair and a third eye in the center of her throat embraces Adriana as she passes.

"Wait!" exclaims Adriana, catching her arm. "Why were you hiding? What are you all so scared of?"

"Oh my god, you didn't know?" gasps the other woman. Her daemon, a gray monkey, claps his paws over his mouth. "This was Street Cleaning Day!"

"We heard on the radio," says Adriana. "Is that how you knew? Have you ever actually seen a street-cleaning machine?"

The woman shudders. "Only once, praise the beams! Last year I didn't make it back to my apartment before the lockdown — it was awful — I still have nightmares about the noise they make! All our petty differences seem so small and meaningless after you survive something like this, don't they?"

So saying, she throws herself into the embrace of another passerby: a bandolier-toting member of the Sheriff's secret police, whose balaclava is soaked with tears.

Citizens are streaming toward the park now, as if it's been a post-disaster meeting place this whole time. Some of them wave and smile as the experimental theologians pass them. Others are too busy humming, or twirling with delight and looking at the sky. Carlos even overhears someone saying, "Electra, you are all to me — will you marry me?"

"Okay, I have a new theory," says Adriana, as they get back to the car. "But it's going to sound really stupid, so you have to promise not to laugh."

"At this point, I'm ready to listen to anything."

The grad student takes a deep breath. "Did you ever have a pet dog?"

"Back when I was working on my Ph.D., one of my housemates had a cat," remembers Carlos. If your daemon settles in a particularly small, delicate, and/or prickly form (in this guy's case, a honeybee), sometimes it's nice to add a large furry animal to your household.

"That'll work too. Do you happen to remember how that cat reacted when you got out the vacuum cleaner...?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos adds this to his list of questions for the phone interviews with the new candidates: If you hear a town-wide warning on the radio, and you don't see any immediate danger but the streets are abandoned, what do you do? (Even if it turns out there was never any danger, "run to the nearest possible shelter and hide" is still the right way to start.)

It's a surreal experience, doing these interviews now that he really knows what Night Vale is like. There are all the usual mundane kinds of questions, and then he gets to turn around and add:

Are you comfortable enough with portable anbarics to get by easily without writing utensils?

Tell me about a time you kept something secret or confidential.

If you got approval to ask one question of the alethiometer at Oxford, what would you ask?

Do you have any self-defense training? Weapons training?

Yes, Dr. Köhler, you're more than qualified on a scholarly level, which is why I'm asking these questions. I don't want to be responsible for getting one of the foremost experts in our field hurt, or possibly killed. So, again: are you willing to abide, in your speech and writing, by the City Council ruling that angels do not exist, and we know nothing about them or their hierarchical structure?

Are you willing to tolerate 24/7 surveillance for your protection?

How would you react if, while walking around town, you met a man who appeared to be lucid and friendly, but had no visible daemon?

How would you react if an angel, which exists only hypothetically for the purposes of this question, told you that Will Parry was real?

With all these things answered, he offers them the chance to ask him questions in return. Every single person wants to grill him about the visit from Erika on Christmas Eve. Only one is savvy enough to phrase it "If angels existed, would you say the figure in that video was definitely an angel?" Carlos bumps her application straight to the top of the list.

His three favorites by the end are a geneticist, a biochemist, and the multi-talented Köhler. After sending them formal invitations, Carlos forces himself to do another round of deleting "go to hell, you heretic" emails before letting himself go to dinner.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex is surprisingly crowded for a night when they aren't offering free buffalo wings. Carlos hadn't realized how many people in Night Vale care about the success of their bowling team.

Facing off tonight are the top three players from Night Vale — which turn out to be Josie (down by the car lot), John Peters (you know, the farmer?), and Frances Donaldson (manager of the Antiques Mall) — versus the top three from nearby Pine Cliffs. The jukebox is playing a suitably dramatic mix of rock songs. Half the snack area is solid purple with team-spirit gear...except for a splash of crimson-and-white. Cecil has accessorized his purple overalls and furry purple shirt with his new Harvard scarf.

Carlos and Brad order a plate of portobello sliders (on corn-based buns) and find an empty table. Or at least, it looks empty. Brad nearly sits on Erika, stammers an apology, and hangs his jacket over the back of her seat to discourage other people from trying the same thing.

Two frames into the tournament, the jukebox gets stuck playing "Mister Brownstone" over and over, and Cecil comes over to Carlos's table. "Carlos~! Would it be a terrible imposition if I sat here for a bit? Steve Carlsberg is being even more of a jerk than usual. I don't know how he stands himself sometimes."

"Pull up a chair," says Carlos, more pleased about this development than he wants to admit. "How was your holiday?"

It sets Cecil off on a long rant about how Steve does not take seriously the threat of the underground city below Lane Five, whose hostile generals are intent on marching upon Night Vale in war. Carlos is temporarily alarmed, until he pushes for details and learns that nobody has actually seen or heard from this conquering army who are expected to demand blood sacrifice from the Upper World any day now. Cecil isn't even getting his information from the alethiometer. He's just "extrapolating" the whole thing from some blurry security-motion footage of what sounds like a couple of raccoons digging through Teddy Williams' garbage.

After Street Cleaning Day, Carlos doesn't feel too guilty about taking this story with a grain of salt. But he and Isaña, perched on the table next to their plate, are still listening too carefully to get around to eating.

At the top of the fifth frame, Night Vale is ahead by a slim thirteen points, and Teddy Williams himself stops by their table. He's a large, dark-skinned man, with the kind of build you get from spending many years playing a physically demanding sport, then retiring and lapsing into a diet consisting of way too much greasy bowling alley food. His daemon, a lanky brushtail possum, hangs over his shoulder. "Cecil! Just the man I wanted to see. I need you to send out a news bulletin."

"Teddy! Are there any more developments about the underground city?" exclaims Cecil, switching to Spanish in place of the English he's been using for Brad's benefit. "Do you think the jukebox malfunction has something to do with them?"

"Could be, could be," says Teddy seriously. "Mister Brownstone...could be some kind of code. Maybe a way for them to threaten us. Or maybe a subtle call for peace."

Cecil shudders. "We can hardly dare to hope."

It turns out the actual bulletin Teddy wants Cecil to send around Night Vale is a reminder for citizens to learn their shoe sizes, to facilitate speedier bowling-shoe rentals. Cecil makes a solemn promise to spread the word. Carlos tunes them out and has a couple of sliders.

They make a conversational detour to cheer when Josie bowls a strike, then Teddy moves on and Cecil switches back to English. "Gosh, I've been talking this whole time, haven't I? Tell me about your own breaks! Did anything exciting happen?"

Carlos frowns. "Cecil...do you do much looking at the news outside of Night Vale?"

"I don't know where I'd find the time," says Cecil sheepishly. "Why?"

Carlos catches Brad's eye for a moment as they both process the fact that Cecil has no idea about the firestorm they're going through. Hasn't even heard about it from Josie. They could bring it up now, and get Cecil's reaction...or they could not have to talk about it at all, any more than Carlos has to talk about any of the stressful moments he had with his family in private.

"Nothing important," decides Carlos. "My break, my break...um, well, I came out to my family. That was interesting."

Brad sets down his water glass with a hard thunk. "You —"

"Hm?"

"I didn't realize —" The student's face is turning red. In his shirt pocket, his hamster daemon burrows down so far she almost disappears, nothing visible but a tuft of golden fur. "I thought we were just teasing because it's funny — we haven't said anything too, too weird or whatever, have we? I wasn't trying to insinuate anything — sorry!"

"No offense taken," says Carlos quickly. He'll have to remember later to ask Brad not to spread the word outside of town. The last thing he needs is to invite more religiously-motivated hate-mail. "It's barely worth mentioning, honestly. It only came up at home because they saw I'd gotten a gift from someone named Josie, and asked if she and I were, um, involved, and, you know, one thing led to another."

"I confess that I'm not really following this conversation," says Cecil cheerfully, "but it sounds like you got your gifts all right, huh?"

"Yes! Yes, they all came through." And now Carlos feels like a jerk, because he's wearing the pendant, since he knew Josie would be here, but he also knew Cecil would be here and his wrists are still bare. "I, ah, I did some...experiments!...to the watch you sent. It's been very helpful for my research!"

Cecil raises his eyebrows. "Ohhh?"

Is it Carlos's guilty conscience, or does Cecil sound a bit skeptical? "I'm sorry I wasn't able to wear it here," he stammers. "I really do appreciate you sending it. It was very thoughtful."

"Mmm," says Cecil. "Well, I should get back to the rest of the team now, see if Steve has come to his senses yet. It was lovely talking with you! And thank you again for the scarf and the magnet."

He adjusts the crimson-and-white scarf around his neck as he gets up and swishes off, leaving nothing but a few loose strands of purple fur in his wake.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

So now Carlos has to think up some experiments to do on Cecil's idea of a classy and professionally-appropriate watch, to make amends for his really terrible lying. He brings it into the office the next day, and, for lack of any better ideas, starts by prying the back off to see what's inside.

No gears. No battery. Not even any grey gunk in this one, just a hollow, empty space.

Carlos and Isaña look at each other in shock, then get up without a word to go find some more timepieces. Also, the salt.

Over the course of the afternoon they disassemble two wall clocks, a battered old alarm clock Fleur retrieves from her room (assuring them that she needed an excuse to buy a new one anyway), and Brad's watch. Hollow and empty inside, every single one. The second wall clock holds a larger lump of something grey and gooey...and hairy.

"Why can't our biology people already be here?" laments Isaña, pacing back and forth outside the salt circle on Carlos's desk that surrounds the large grey lump. Everything else in his chapel office has been shoved aside to make space for the timepieces.

"We need more data," says Carlos. He can't keep tearing apart his colleagues' things. Even things that haven't seemed to work right for months. "We could pick up a stack of watches at the local store...can't all be the cheap ones, though, we need a varied sample...."

"That'll get expensive fast," says his daemon. "What if we put out a bulletin asking for donations? Or for the locals to check their own clocks and let us know?"

Which means...calling Cecil.

Well, if Dr. Belacqua had the courage to break into the world of the dead, Carlos can damn well find the courage to make a phone call to someone he was tactless with. Especially for the sake of experimental theology.

He paces the office as his phone rings and rings, and finally clicks over to voicemail. "You've reached Cecil Palmero. Leave a message~!" trills the recording, over what sounds like a couple of particularly loud gyropters (in the real world, not a part of the recording) going by outside.

"Cecil? Sorry to bother you," stammers Carlos. He's never been forwarded to Cecil's voicemail before. "I need you to get the word out — I've been doing experiments on more watches and clocks, and none of them are real. I've disassembled several this morning, and all of them are hollow inside...no gears, no crystal, no —"

From the front of the building, the doorbell rings. Carlos pauses. Fleur and Brad are the only other people working at the chapel right now, and it sounds like they're getting it.

"Sorry. Someone at the door," he says into the phone. "It's taken care of. Listen, Cecil, some of the timepieces have these grey lumps inside, and at least one of them appears to be growing hair...it's also possible that the hair is stuck to it, more observation is required...and I need to know if all the clocks in Night Vale are this way. Can you ask people, on the radio, to check their own clocks and let us know? And, if anyone is willing to donate theirs to the cause of experimental theology? This is very —"

A loud bang sounds from the direction of the street. Like a car backfiring.

Or like a Renée Carlsberg taking out a wheat-based snake.

"I need to go, okay?" says Carlos, voice shaking. "I'll call you back in...I'll call you back."

Chapter Text

Carlos comes back to himself with a confused gasp.

He recognizes the setting immediately — Josie's living room — but everything else is foggy, in a way that scares him. Why are they here? What happened to get them here? Where did his chapel coat go?

And why does the room smell like vainilla?

A small gasp from his lap draws his attention to Isaña, and he wraps both hands around her armor. "It's okay...I think. Do you know how...?"

"...we got here? No, no, I don't...how long has it been?" She looks all around the room, as if she's going to find an answer in the old-fashioned wallpaper, then up at Carlos's face. "Have we been crying...?"

Carlos blinks a couple of times. Now that he's paying attention, his eyes do have a too-familiar dried-out soreness. He starts trying to focus on the rest of his body piece by piece, to figure out if and how he's been injured in whatever happened during the blankness between then and what now?

"Ah, you two sound better," says Josie's voice from the direction of the kitchen. "Don't try to get up yet. What's the last thing you remember?"

Dredging things up out of the fog is an effort. "Cecil...we hung up on Cecil. There was a...shot? Was somebody shot?"

"Well, you're remembering this morning, so you didn't lose too much," says Josie reassuringly, bustling over to their armchair with one hand leaning on her cane and the other holding a mug of something steaming. "Your team knows you're here and safe, and that sweetheart Fleur told me to tell you none of them are dead or in critical condition."

That answers the two most important questions Carlos would eventually have been lucid enough to ask. Which leaves just one. "Did we call Cecil back?"

"I don't believe so, no. Drink this."

Carlos takes the mug, full of tea with an unfamiliar tart scent, but doesn't drink it yet. "I need to call Cecil."

"Young man, you've just gotten over being abducted by the Magisterium and put through a severe ordeal. Cecil's kept for a few hours, he will keep for another ten minutes while you finish your tea."

"No." On some level Carlos is aware that it's childish and stubborn, but he can't make himself stop. He's confused and scared and feels horribly helpless, knowing he's been hurt without any memories of how; he can't deal with the thought of letting something spin on unresolved when he knows how to fix it. "Cecil first."

Josie sighs, but sits sideways on her cane and glides off to her bedroom to retrieve the phone.

It's a slightly outdated cordless model, with Cecil on speed dial, number 6. By the time Carlos realizes he hasn't exactly planned out what to say, it's already put him through to voicemail. "Cecil? It's me again, from Josie's phone. Sorry about the delay, somebody came over, and then I lost my memories of most of the afternoon. Anyway, I want to talk to you about coming down to the chapel some time soon, if I haven't done that already...and, again, can you get the word out on your show about the clocks?"

He hangs up feeling...not fulfilled, exactly, but better. More centered. When Josie looks sternly at his untouched mug of tea, he takes it without any more fuss and starts sipping. She watches in silence, but does soften enough to reach out and brush some tousled hair out of his face: a tenderly fussy sort of gesture, as if he's a wayward grandson who's exhausted himself playing in the yard.

When he swallows the last drop, she even rewards him with an approving smile before getting solemn again. "There's something else I need you to do for me, Carlos. You won't like it, but I need to know."

Carlos curls one hand around his daemon. "What is it?"

"You and Isaña need to test your range."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Earlier, and no longer in Carlos' memories...

Carlos drops the phone, scoops Isaña into the crook of his arm, and makes his way toward the sound of the gunshot.

"Carlos!" shouts Fleur, turning a corner in the hall and practically crashing into him. She's on the verge of tears, her grackle daemon a mess of sticking-up feathers. "Carlos, I'm sorry!" she chokes in English. "We tried to tell them you weren't here, and then they shot Brad —"

"What?"

"I'm getting the first-aid kit, just go —!"

Blood running ice-cold, Carlos sprints for the door.

There are two sleek gyropters parked in the middle of the street, not caring that they're blocking the entrance to the Big Rico's parking lot. Both of them are jet black. That's not the color of the Sheriff's secret police, it's the color of the World Consistorial Court, and sure enough, the man with a gun trained on Brad is wearing the dark glasses and clerical collar of the local vague-yet-menacing branch of the Magisterium. So is the man who points a matching firearm at Carlos.

"I'm unarmed!" yells Carlos, holding up his free hand in surrender. Brad's on the ground, face pale as a sheet and blood pooling on the sidewalk underneath him, but he's alive, and it's a leg wound he's clutching, nowhere near any vital organs. "Put pressure on it, Brad, just like that — don't worry, Fleur's coming —"

"We're going to need you to come with us, Dr. Ramirez," says the man with the gun pointed at him, in clipped, accented Spanish. There's a translucent insect-daemon lanyard around his neck, protecting a two-inch-long brownish-gold locust.

"Do you have the right paperwork?" blurts Carlos.

"Huh?"

"You're not with the Sheriff's secret police. I'm pretty sure that means you can't just take people away unless you've filled out the paperwork first. Police! Do these men have all their forms in order?"

A secret police officer wearing all black, with a balaclava-clad songbird on her shoulder, pops out of the bushes at the side of the building. "Good point," she says, hoisting a wicked-looking rifle. "Gentlemen, I'm going to need you to hold off on your kidnapping while we double-check the files."

One of the drains across the street creaks and pops open, letting a second officer and his ferret daemon pop out. "You want to keep them covered while I call HQ?"

"Affirmative."

"Look, you folks have a very simple choice," says the Magisterium official with the locust daemon, as a breathless Fleur emerges from the chapel behind Carlos and tries to move towards Brad in a way that doesn't encourage them to shoot her too. "We take Dr. Ramirez with us right now, or we leave him on the steps with a bullet through his heart. Which will it be?"

"You shoot that man, and you're dead," snaps the officer with the songbird. "You might take me out before I get both of you, but more officers are converging on the scene as we speak."

"We shoot that man, and he'll be dead, no matter what you do to us after," counters the Magisterium official. "How many of you are willing to be the officers who let Carlos Perfecto get killed on their watch?"

The officer...falters, lowering her gun.

Goddammit, Carlos is supposed to be protected by Cecil's willingness to wreak vengeance on his behalf.

— and that's when the second Magisterium official fires. A spray of blood flies through the air as the officer topples backward, a hole in her head, her daemon vanishing into thin air before she hits the ground.

"Stop it!" cries Carlos, sick with fear. This is officially the least funny Night Vale anecdote he's ever collected. She's dead. But guns don't kill people, we're all invincible to bullets and it's a — "I'll come quietly, just, please, stop shooting people!"

The man with the locust daemon nods toward one of the gyropters. "This way. No sudden movements."

And the other Magisterium official's daemon, a shaggy rust-colored orangutan, lopes on feet and knuckles over to join them. "Give me your daemon."

"You don't have to do that," says Carlos weakly. He's coming, isn't he? What more do they want?

"You want me to take off your friend's other leg?" asks the second Magisterium official.

Carlos doesn't have to tell Isaña to roll up. She's a perfectly-interlocked sphere of armor when he passes her into the orangutan's hands.

The first official grabs a fistful of Carlos' shirt and chapel coat at the back of his neck, jams the barrel of the gun against his lower back, and aims him toward one of the black gyropters...

...while the orangutan daemon, side-by-side with the man who still has his gun trained on Brad and Fleur, lopes toward the other one.

It's too much. "No!" cries Carlos as the pain starts. "No, please!"

"We fly in very close formation," the Magisterium official at his back assures him. "As long as nothing happens to disrupt either one of us, you'll live."

Carlos has to be shoved into the gyropter; he's barely standing. A black canvas hood comes down over his head — completely unnecessary, he's in no condition to keep tabs on where they're going. His daemon is six feet away from him, twelve, fifteen, and it hurts it hurts it hurts

Brave like Lyra brave like Lyra brave like Lyra

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

An eternity of searing, sobbing, full-body pain later, the gyropters land.

Two people who are both stronger than Carlos on a good day haul him out of the gyropter and half-march, half-carry him across a flat, hard surface. He can feel Isaña close again, blessedly close — but either she's still passed out, the way he's sure he did at least twice, or just doesn't have the strength to call a name.

There's a change in the way sound resonates around them, moving from outside to inside, then one of his captors grunts, "Stairs."

Carlos trips and stumbles his way down.

It isn't like after his secret-police interrogation, where his body was a physical wreck from being flooded with anbaric shocks and hypnogogic gas, not to mention getting a bone broken. His muscles and joints are all fine. He just can't gather enough resolve out of the shattered mess of his emotions to concentrate on moving them right.

He gets shoved into a chair, the hood yanked from his head; he flinches at the sudden brilliance of fluorescents, at fresh air rushing cold over the damp streaks of tears running down his face. There's an off-white tabletop in front of him, and Isaña gets tossed onto this; Carlos collapses on top of her with a cry of relief. She's unconscious, but she's okay, and she's here. He's here. They have each other.

"How long until he recovers enough to talk?" demands an unfamiliar voice. From the way it resounds, the room they're in is huge.

"Hard to say," replies the voice of the man with the locust daemon. "This man is known to consort with witches. For all we know, he could be pretending at this very moment."

I do not consort with witches, thinks Carlos, with the scattered hysteria of the actively-traumatized. I'm gay.

"We'll give him five minutes," decides the new voice. "And why is there no water here? Get us some water."

Carlos has no idea if it's been five minutes, or less, or more, by the time he recovers the presence of mind to focus on his surroundings. He keeps his head down (trying to make the Magisterium underestimate how well he's recovering is a decent strategy, and he's grateful they suggested it), but opens his eyes and scans as best he can.

The room is vast, all right. Industrial-gray walls, visible in slivers between rows of sturdy, minimalist, functional metal shelves piled with boxes. A few similar boxes are stacked on a trolley on the side of the main aisle.

A retail stock room?

Isaña starts to stir in his arms, which is a beautiful relief, but has the nasty side effect of tipping his captors off. "All right, Dr. Ramirez, sit up," orders the voice that seems to be in charge. "Or we'll take her away again, and hope you recover faster next time."

Carlos sits up, glasses askew, armadillo-shell prints on his face. He's dazed and shivering and there's a gaping pain in his chest like it's been knifed from the inside out, but Isaña is in his hands, and he feels a strange sort of calm. These people have played their hand too soon. What leverage do they have left over him? Death? He doesn't doubt for a second that they're going to kill him no matter what.

One who knows how to die cannot be forced.

(And if any other daemon tries to grab Isaña, he's punching it in the face.)

Both he and his interrogator are sitting in cheap plastic chairs, on opposite sides of a similarly cheap plastic table. There's nothing chaining Carlos in place, but the man with the locust daemon has a gun trained on him from a few feet away, and two more men in clerical collars with torsos like bodybuilders are standing guard on either side of the other chair.

The man in charge himself is wearing the same black cassock and dark glasses as the rest of them, but accessorized with a wine-colored stole draped over the back of his neck. It matches the glittering shell of the beetle-daemon perched on his shoulder. "Do you know why you're here, Doctor?"

"I...have a guess," says Carlos hoarsely.

"Go on."

"Because...Rusakov particle physicists with connections to an alethiometer are the natural predators of vague yet menacing branches of the Magisterium."

What the hell, they're obviously going to kill him, he might as well quip.

His interrogator, though, raises salt-and-pepper eyebrows in confusion. "With connections to a what?"

"Obscure machine," volunteers one of the bodybuilders. "Not sure why he thinks it's relevant. Maybe he's more scrambled than he looks."

Oh, right. Magisterium agents who operate in Night Vale are re-educated out of knowing what an alethiometer is. Carlos had almost forgotten.

"Or he thinks he's being smart," says the man with the beetle daemon. "Don't try to be smart, Doctor. Do you think we choose lightly to get so involved in the affairs of an individual?"

"...No." But then, he also thought this was level of involvement that went out of style after Lord Asriel disappeared. Torturing and/or killing your most dangerous heretics...the way the Church did with Barnard, with Stokes, with the original Dr. Rusakov himself...at least he'll be in good company.

"No. Of course not. The sad state of the world today is that we cannot bring the word of the Lord to every heretic. But you...! Not only do you stand on the sacred ground of a church and proclaim there is no God, you call on an abominable black apparition in the false shape of an angel to —"

Racist, thinks Carlos bitterly, and holds Isaña tighter as he tunes the man out.

It isn't that he wants to die. The Night Vale field project, having weathered some bad shocks already, might fall apart in total if its chaplain gets murdered for his involvement. His family will be heartbroken; Mamá was right after all, not wanting him to come back here. He's never going to be able to call Cecil back.

It's just that he can't imagine any possible way to escape —

"— all hail, all praise, all submit," the Magisterium agent is intoning, in a strange, monotone voice. "Grovel, mortals."

That sounds...not too different from the Church's usual rhetoric. And yet. And yet, the man's eyes have taken on a vacant, unfocused look, which is eerily mirrored on the faces of the bodybuilders, and the man with the locust daemon.

"Do not beg for your tiny lives," orders Carlos's interrogator to nobody in particular. "No bargain a human can offer will sway the Glow Cloud. Surrender to your own insignificance, and hail."

On that note, he stands, and starts wandering zombi-like toward the stockroom door.

Carlos watches, dumbstruck, as the other men in the room trail vaguely after him.

Isaña, speaking for the first time since she passed out, is the one to put their shock into words: "If the Glow Cloud has been secretly controlling the Magisterium this whole time, we are quitting our job and moving to Bermuda."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The stockroom turns out to be in the back of a sporting-goods store, as Carlos discovers when he creeps out after the dazed Magisterium agents, still holding Isaña tightly against his chest. The men in black cassocks are still wandering forward, paying no attention to their surroundings. Carlos hides behind a display of footballs to watch, still not convinced that someone isn't going to jump out and shoot him between the eyes if he makes a wrong step.

He can't see all the way to the front of the store, but the light through the front windows filters a fair way back, softly changing colors. Red, green, violet, gold, octarine (the name jumps into Carlos's head out of nowhere, but as soon as the color fades he can't picture what it was), pink, silver. The Glow Cloud is waiting.

"Need to improvise a weapon," whispers Isaña.

Jittery with adrenaline, Carlos scans the placards hanging from the store ceiling. There's a large cartoonish baseball suspended over Aisle 9.

His heart still hurts hurts hurts, but he can walk again, and he sneaks and ducks through the deserted store with Isaña in his hands until they reach the furthermost aisle. Catcher's mitts, umpire gear, baseballs...bats. Carlos picks a solid hardwood specimen with a comfortable cloth grip. "How's this?"

"Renée Carlsberg would be proud of us."

So armed, they head to the end of the aisle. Carlos can hear muffled noises from outside now: some kind of conversation, broken by the occasional snapping thud. Hiding behind a display of basketball-jersey-modeling mannequins (one of which has a second plastic head grafted onto its shoulders) gives them enough cover to risk taking a look.

The parking lot is littered with heaps of tawny fur and black cloth.

"The Glow Cloud is dropping animals on the Magisterium agents," whispers Carlos. His throat is still raw, and his eyes feel sore and hard to focus. At least he managed not to lose his glasses in the chaos. "Big ones. I see a lion, an alpaca, a...a moose?"

"Are they dead?" asks his daemon. Her distance vision isn't good enough to pick out any of this.

"The animals, yes. The agents...hard to tell. So many of them had insect daemons, I can't see if they're still there or not. Wait...."

The agent with the orangutan daemon is still standing, bathed in blue-violet light from the Glow Cloud, unmoving.

Splat goes a Komodo dragon from above.

"It's killing them." Carlos closes his eyes, just for a moment, then forces himself to look again. "And there are other people waiting by the street, on the other side of the parking lot. No uniforms or anything, just plain clothes. Sheriff's secret police, undercover? I don't recognize any of them from here...."

The Cloud pulses a vibrant traffic-light green, three times in a row.

"They're coming this way!" whispers Carlos, and darts back into the aisles.

He doesn't have the faintest idea who this new group is, or what their motives are for systematically executing his captors. It would be nice to think they're here to rescue him. But what are the odds that a competent, organized group of people (and/or clouds) with an interest in his personal safety have appeared out of nowhere?

Maybe this has nothing to do with Carlos at all. There are any number of groups who could hold a grudge against a vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium, and make plans to attack them without caring who else is in the building at the time. For all he knows, this could be another vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium, making a power-grab against the first.

The front doors open. "Fan out," orders an unfamiliar woman's voice. "He's in here somewhere."

And another voice, which he vaguely recognizes but can't place, calls, "Dr. Perfecto? Can you hear us?"

Well, that's one hypothesis ruled out. They're here for him. Now the only question is why.

Someone's coming his way.

Carlos sets Isaña on the nearest shelf, in between several tubes of tennis balls that look much furrier than the usual kind, and wraps both hands around the grip of the bat. In the absence of any evidence that these people are friendly, he's going to hit first and ask questions later.

The footfalls get louder. A dim shadow appears past the end of the aisle.

Short-of-breath with anxiety, Carlos waits and waits and waits and swings

He sees his mistake too late to stop, just barely in time to pull back on the blow, so it's only with a fraction of his original intended force that the hardwood bat smashes into Steve Carlsberg's nose.

"Sorry!" cries Carlos, tossing the bat aside and holding up both hands while Steve clutches his face and spits out a string of inventive Spanish curses. "Sorry, it's me, I didn't know, what are you doing here?"

"Found him!" yells Taeminlahn, Steve's badger daemon, to the rest of the store. "No hostiles, but somebody get bandages and an ice pack!"

Carlos is already stripping off his chapel coat. He's got plenty; he can spare this one. Steve holds the bunched-up off-white fabric against his nose, where it gets blood-soaked fast but seems to be staunching the flow. "We're redcuig you, id'jit," he says bitterly, hanging on to a display of tennis rackets for balance.

"For the record, we were not in favor of executions," adds Taeminlahn, meaning herself and Steve. "But the argument that it would be a mercy-killing swayed a majority vote...Carlos, you look awful. Are you okay? Where's Isaña?"

"Oh, thank goodness," cuts in the sort-of-familiar woman's voice — she's running towards them, oryx daemon cantering at her side, and now Carlos recognizes her — it's Flora Sandero, the woman with the two-headed son. "Any physical injuries, Doctor? Cuts, bruises, dislocation, sprains, amputations, broken bones, new parasites?"

"None of the above." Carlos gathers Isaña back into his arms. He hadn't realized how much of his recovery was adrenaline-fueled, but now, with the immediate sense of danger gone, he's starting to crash. "They held my daemon away from me — far away — but she's here now, and it hurts much less, and they didn't get to do anything else before you — you — who are you people?"

"Id'dit it obvious?" asks Steve.

Carlos' mind races, trying to put the evidence together. Some kind of vigilante anti-authoritarian collective, acting where even the Sheriff's secret police are held back...ordinary citizens on the surface, hiding in plain sight by....

"Dr. Perfecto," says Mrs. Sandero, interrupting his thoughts. "We're the PTA."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It turns out the Flint Drive Used and Discount Sporting Goods Store is one of the worst-concealed secret hideouts in town (and that's saying something). There's a black gyropter sitting on the roof right now, for crying out loud.

Carlos lets his rescuers guide him through the parking lot, holding Isaña tight and trying not to look at the bodies, stammering about how he would like to go home, unless Night Vale General knows any daemon-separation-trauma treatments, and has anyone told his team he's okay?

That's when a fast-moving bird-shape dives out of the sky: Ojansi, Josie's falcon daemon, landing on the tawny shoulders of the Glow-Cloud-dropped lion corpse. In a tone that says he will hear no argument from anyone who isn't at least a hundred and fifty years old, he orders, "You will bring the experimental theologian to us."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Present time.

The words test your range hit Carlos like a punch to the gut, leaving his heart pounding and his palms clammy.

It's such a simple request. All she's asking is for them to move, of their own volition, to a distance they know is comfortable. But it touches off a fear-response running deeper than conscious memory, and he feels in his bones that whatever the Magisterium did to them, it included forcing them apart. Badly.

"We already know it," says Isaña, turning in Carlos's lap to face Josie. "Just under five feet. That's what it's always been."

"Nevertheless," says Josie, blue-grey eyes sharp and stormy.

There are times when, with her unlined face and not even a premature touch of grey in her hair, Josie can come off like an ordinary young woman with some eccentric habits. Right now is not one of them. It's enough to make Carlos wonder if he's kidding himself, thinking of her as a friend — she likes him, certainly, but that doesn't mean she sees him as an equal. He's so much younger than Old Woman Josie, after all. And witches are proud.

"Okay," says Carlos weakly. He lifts Isaña from his lap and gives her a kiss on the ear. "You sit. I'll walk. It won't take long."

"I'll be right here." She's shaking. "Right here watching."

Carlos sets her on the arm of the chair and gets up.

He doesn't look at Josie as he steps backward; he doesn't even look at where he's going, relying on memory and a slow pace to get him safely through the room. All he watches is Isaña as he moves away from her, past the ottoman, around the coffee table, past the other chair....

This...is more than five feet, right? Is the cluttered little room skewing up his sense of perspective?

Carlos takes another step backward. Now it has to be at least six feet.

Seven. Eight.

Nine...and his chest starts to feel tight.

He shuffles back a few more inches, just to get confirming evidence, and there it is, the first sharp stabs of one of those particular flavors of pain that take turns haunting his nightmares. "This is it. I — we could get farther, I think, but — but we don't have to, right? Please?"

"You don't," says Josie, picking up his mug. "I'll get you some more tea."

Carlos leaps straight over the coffee table to get back to the chair.

Holding Isaña against his still-pounding heart, he follows Josie into the kitchen. "Why did we have to do that?" he demands. "Why — why have we changed? Why do you have...daemon-separation-healing tea sitting around in your cupboard?"

"I have lingonberry tea in my cupboard because it is full of nutritious vitamins and minerals," says Josie, leaning her cane against the cupboards and fussing with a strainer and a tin of dried leaves. "And I really couldn't say why your range has...stretched, if that's what's happened. It's quite new to me. This is the sort of thing you study, though, isn't it?"

"It's new to me too, but it does fall in our field," admits Carlos. The connection between humans and their daemons is intrinsically linked to Rusakov particles. Much as he hates the thought of it, he'll want to push his range again later, with his teammates' cameras running. "So if that isn't what you were looking for, then what is?"

"Young man, you are welcome to take readings and do experiments at my home as much as you like, but don't you ask questions related to ancient witch-lore and expect you'll get an answer."

It slows Carlos down. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize."

But it gives him something to think about, and because thinking is also part of being an experimental theologian, he can't stop turning it over in his mind. Witch-lore. Related to...whatever it was she was looking for. If she had found it, would she have told them? And if it was something different from this new...stretchiness....

With a soft whoosh of air Ojansi soars into the room, landing on the countertop next to Josie, where they trade a brief greeting in their native tongue.

"How do witches' daemons get their ranges?" blurts Isaña.

The question throws Carlos for a loop. He's always thought they were born with it. "It's genetic. Isn't it?"

"Can't be. Pantalaimon, remember? And Khoshekh."

"Fluke mutations? Related to their gift with the alethiometer, maybe."

"You're still thinking it's inherent. Inborn. But if that's the case, then why...."

Now Carlos catches what she's driving at. "...why would a witch be wondering if it had appeared in someone? And why us?"

Josie finishes setting up the tea to steep, turns to the two of them, and leans back against the counter with folded hands and an unreadable expression. "You two certainly do think a lot."

"It's part of being an experimental theologian," say Carlos and Isaña in chorus.

Ojansi addresses Josie in Northern Lapp again, and she replies in kind, testy. Carlos has picked up a few phrases (hello, goodbye, lovely weather we're having), but for the most part he knows the Lapp languages as well as he knows Muscovy or Corean, so he's immediately lost.

They're arguing, that much is clear. And they don't want him to be in on the details, which means they're arguing about him, which means...is there a chance they'll decide to tell him after all?

Carlos waits for them to reach a break in the conversation, then puts in a tentative word for himself. "We can keep it secret. Even if that means...not doing all the research we would like to."

"You can keep yourself from researching it?" echoes Josie. "You, Carlos the Experimental Theologian, who wants to know all the secrets of the universe, and will hang around through all kinds of trauma to do it? I won't say it's not a noble goal, but if anything is going to be your downfall, it's that way you can't stop trying to know everything about everything."

"I've stopped myself from telling any researchers outside of Night Vale about the alethiometer," protests Carlos. "Do you think I haven't thought about it? That's not exactly a specialty I was looking for when I put this team together! There's any number of experimental theologians who could study it more effectively, and would fly out here on their own money to do it. But I promised not to let the word get out, and I haven't."

"Please," adds Isaña. "Even if we didn't end up with a witch's range today, if there's any chance it could happen in the future...we deserve to understand."

Josie shares another unreadable look with her daemon, then closes her eyes. "You can set your minds at ease. It isn't the sort of thing that happens by accident. There was a vanishingly slim chance that it had happened today...but as I understand it you were held quite far apart, and for a rather long time, so I had to be sure."

"Being held far enough past the edge of your range is what breaks it, then?" asks Carlos. "If you don't die of shock in the process."

"Traditionally, you don't let someone else do the holding."

"I...I don't understand."

"Far in the North, there's a stretch of land that's dead," says Ojansi gently. "Not just desolate — it's been devastated on a profound level, like a scar in the fabric of the world. Daemons can't enter it. That's the usual place to go. Young witches cross it, and we are compelled to stay behind."

Carlos is thunderstruck. To force your own daemon away from you, to deliberately tear out half of its heart...he can't imagine. And all witches have done this? Josie once did this?

But his horror at the idea is strangely familiar....

"The world of the dead!" exclaims Isaña. "That's how Pantalaimon got his range, isn't it? When Dr. Belacqua had to leave him behind in order to go in?"

Josie starts. "How ever did you hear about that?"

"Erika told us." A thought hits Carlos, one he can't believe he hasn't asked before. "Are you old enough to — did you know Dr. Belacqua?"

"Do you know every celebrity who's ever lived in Trimountaine? I was alive and in my first century when that business happened, but no, I never met her. Anyway, she dealt mostly with Serafina Pekkala's clan, the Lake Enara witches. My clan is Lake Jeris."

"And Khoshekh," continues Isaña, ignoring the tangent. "He and Cecil...how did they...?"

"Cecil's story is for Cecil to tell," says Josie, in a voice that shuts down any further questions. "Suffice to say that my mother brewed me this very tea after my own separation ordeal, and I brewed it for Cecil after his, and now, since you have clearly been through an ordeal even without the separation part, I will insist that you have at least one more cup."

Chapter Text

Carlos and Adriana, having parked the van and the coupe in the lot by the Randy Neumann Memorial Aerodock, take a breather in the international waiting area. According to their instincts (not their watches; Carlos is one step away from giving up on timepieces altogether), it's almost time for the flight with their new arrivals to...well, arrive.

They considered making some kind of signboard, but Carlos figures the chapel coats will make them conspicuous enough.

Li Hua, the geneticist, is the first to make it through customs, a brown-throated wren daemon perched on her shoulder. She's young for a Ph.D., but has a lot more papers to her name than Carlos did at that age, and she was the one who impressed him by being quick-thinking enough to use the caveat "if angels were real..." in the phone interview.

At the moment she looks perfectly composed, which is even more impressive, since she just went through customs. "Tell me one thing," she says, shaking Carlos's and Adriana's hands in turn. "Do they demand to know the kissing history of everyone who comes through, or just the young, reasonably-attractive women?"

"It's everyone," says Carlos with a shrug. "I assume they're trying to sensitize you to the general invasions of privacy you can expect during your stay. Which are, of course, entirely reasonable and for our protection."

Next is Mateo, the biochemist, with a Siberian weasel curled around the back of his neck. The animal is in the same genus as the pine marten, a fact which other biochemists probably shrug at, but which is going to get him a few twinges of envy from Rusakov physicists. He's also wearing a necklace with a tiny cross, but he seemed reasonable enough when they spoke briefly about the news Carlos made back home, so Carlos is optimistic that that won't be a problem.

Unlike Li Hua, he looks pretty frazzled. "Are there a lot of staircases like that around this town?"

Carlos remembers the long drop, the steps with no railing, uncomfortably narrow for him; Mateo's a pretty large guy, which must have made the whole thing even more treacherous. "Just the front steps of City Hall. If you ever really need to get in there, crawling through the windows is usually easiest."

They all stand around with the luggage and make small talk for a while, until Carlos starts to get antsy. The last arrival should be through security by now....

Speaking of security: "Excuse me!" interrupts a man in an official-looking uniform with bright red eyes. (Three of them. Two in the usual places, one on the back of his left hand.) His daemon, a wading bird with tawny feathers and a long narrow bill, walks briskly alongside him. "Martin McCaffrey, aerodock security. You folks the party expecting a Keith Köhler?"

"That's us," says Carlos, matching the man's Spanish. "Is there a problem, officer?"

"Ah, Mr. Perfecto," says McCaffrey. "We're having some difficulties with translation. Would you mind coming through to the back and helping out?"

"That's Dr. Perfecto," corrects Carlos, "and I'm happy to help. Do the rest of you want to start moving your bags to the cars?"

Nobody answers. All he gets are a couple of mildly uncomfortable stares. He was still using Spanish, which might put off Li Hua, but Adriana and Mateo are both fluent, so what's going on?

Adriana coughs, and embedded in the cough is the word "Ramirez."

Carlos blinks. "That's what I said. ...Isn't it?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It only takes a few minutes to extricate Dr. Köhler from the argument he's gotten into with a customs agent. "Difficulties with translation" turns out to be a euphemism for "we're refusing to translate his complaints because we don't want to file the paperwork for sending a new arrival straight to civic re-education," but Carlos says a few cautionary things in English and a few soothing ones in Spanish (including the suggestion that he can encourage Cecil to praise their noble profession on-air), and it all works out in the end.

"It's an honor to have you here, Dr. Köhler," adds Carlos as McCaffrey shows them back to the waiting area. "Let me help you with your bags. How was your trip?"

Köhler in person looks exactly like the professional headshots Carlos has seen on university websites and conference bulletins: a severe older man with square-rimmed glasses and a thick white beard. "Impossible," he says gruffly. "The flight in, there was a storm, they said. But what kind of storm turns all the windows black? The pilot, how could he fly?"

His daemon whuffs in sympathetic disapproval as she trots alongside him, pulling a small bag of her own. She's a binturong, a tree-dwelling mammal colloquially called a bearcat, because she looks eerily like a cross between the two genuses. Thick blue-black fur gives her the illusion of extra size, but even discounting that, she's almost a meter from her nose to the base of her long bushy tail.

"Coal dust storm," says Carlos. "We get those sometimes. They're not scheduled, like sandstorms, so it's hard to prepare, but we make do. Although I've never tried to travel through one! I can understand how that would be harrowing."

They get out to the cars, where Adriana, Mateo, and a good chunk of luggage have piled into the coupe, leaving Carlos, Li Hua, and Köhler to wrangle everything else into the van. Li Hua ends up in the passenger seat, Carlos driving, Köhler and the daemons — wren, binturong, and Isaña — taking up the bucket seats behind them. The rest of the space is crammed almost to bursting. Why oh why didn't they have someone bring the truck?

Nothing to be done about it now, though. And it's a short trip.

Carlos switches on the radio as they pull out onto the road...and is quickly sorry he did. The news today appears to have been pre-empted by a loud, belligerent, apparently-not-satirical diatribe on how there are no such thing as mountains. Cecil's voice is part of it, and by the sound of things he's got the entire station staff involved.

"What on Earth is that?" asks Li Hua.

"I have no idea." Carlos powers the whole thing off, embarrassed. Why couldn't Cecil have been saying something cool and mysterious? This is not the first impression he wants the new experimental theologians to get of the Voice of Night Vale. "Usually that channel has news, and any alerts or emergency reports...."

"No, I don't mean on the radio. I mean out the window!"

Carlos chances a look.

"How can there be a mountain?" adds Köhler, sounding affronted, as if the high snow-capped peak manifested in the middle of this vast desert flatness for the sole purpose of annoying him.

"There isn't," says Carlos. "It's a mirage."

"Hell of a detailed mirage," says Li Hua, not unreasonably. "Although...now that I'm looking for it, it could be translucent...Wait — up at the top, there's something —"

"Blinking red light?" suggests Carlos.

"Yes!"

"Yeah, that's one of the regular ones. We're probably not at an angle to see it, but if you get some altitude or go out near the edge of town, you can see this sort of muddy flood plain thing it rises out of. Full of bones."

"That is no mirage," says Köhler. "The borders between the worlds must be thin here."

Carlos tries not to be annoyed that Köhler assumes they haven't thought of that. "None of it shows up in photograms developed with the Asriel emulsion. A mirage may not be the exact term, but it's the most accurate one we have."

"Does it show up in...regular photograms?" asks Li Hua uncertainly. It reminds Carlos that she and Mateo are the first people on the team for whom Rusakov particles are a tangential focus at best. Possibly they've never even worked with the Asriel emulsion before. "And if not, has someone at least made sketches of the structure of those bones?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

There's a fair-haired and dead-eyed City Council messenger child standing in the driveway of the larger house when they get back. Carlos parks in the street and gets out. "I'll help with your luggage in just a minute. I need to take this."

This particular child is standing next to a wheeled tank of water, in which its daemon floats in the form of some hideous fanged deep-sea fish. Presumably that means the daemon is settled, but the child still doesn't evidence anything Carlos can interpret as a gender cue. It opens its mouth and hisses as he approaches, a noise like the static between channels.

"Sorry, but do you have anything clearer?" says Carlos, bending a little so he's closer to eye level with the messenger. "I'm not fluent in...whatever that was."

The albino child frowns, then hisses again.

"English? Spanish? French? We have a German speaker now, too...Li Hua, long shot, but is there any chance you speak Cathay?"

"No Cathay, no Nipponese, no Corean," calls the geneticist, wrestling one of her suitcases from the back of the van. "I took Muscogee in school, could probably remember some of it in a pinch. Would that help?"

Carlos turns to the messenger child. "Muscogee?"

The child stamps its foot in frustration, then makes a series of hand gestures, a loose improvised sign language.

"You'll come back later?" guesses Carlos.

Nodding, the dead-eyed child takes the handle of its daemon's wheeled tank and pushes it sullenly up the drive.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Nobody else comes to greet them; the rest of the team is hard at work. Fleur is running angel tests at Josie's; Gerald and Henriette are taking Rusakov readings at the NVCR station (their free StrexCorp detectors have turned out not to be accurate at a range that high); and Brad....

Brad's at physio, trying to minimize the long-term damage from the gunshot wound that miraculously failed to hit his femoral artery. Carlos still isn't sure if he was present for the actual shooting or just saw the aftermath, but both Brad and Fleur are scalded enough by the whole incident that he doesn't want to grill them about it just to straighten out the missing details in his own memory.

When everybody's things are more or less in their chosen rooms, Carlos asks the new arrivals to join him in the living room of the larger house. He shuts all the windows, draws all the blinds, then steps into the next room and says loudly, "Adriana, it's your turn to clean the kitchen, right?"

"Oh, yeah!" says Adriana, in a similarly clear and audible voice. "Hang on, let me get my motivational music."

They now have at least forty-five minutes of cover by a loud, pounding rock beat. Just to make sure all their bases are covered, though, Carlos opens his little talk by placing one of Renée Carlsberg's foam-and-glitter snowmen on the coffee table. "Phone coverage is sometimes spotty out here. Would you three mind checking yours real quick?"

Li Hua has a cutting-edge smartphone, a model that can't have been released more than a few months ago. Mateo has a simpler phone, like Carlos's, and Köhler has a flip-phone that looks like it can't do anything but make calls and write clunky texts with the number pad. All of them are getting a signal.

Carlos switches the snowman on. "Run a test, send me a text."

"Wait...I just lost it," says Mateo.

Li Hua looks furious, her wren daemon doing a startled little flap on the arm of her chair. "What the...? I was guaranteed coverage everywhere in Hispania Nova! What do those clowns think I'm paying them for?"

"Such jumping to conclusions," says Köhler crisply. "Of course this is no coincidence. Dr. Ramirez has blocked the signals."

"Please, just call me Carlos. And that's right." Which means Carlos has no grounds to be annoyed this time, doesn't it? He sits back in his own chair, Isaña resting comfortably on his thigh. "Sorry for the misdirection, but the Sheriff's secret police can't let people get away with saying 'take out your phones so I can track whether any local surveillance devices are being jammed properly'."

To their credit, nobody in the room panics at the matter-of-fact reminder that they're always being watched. They came into this fully informed, the way the original team was informed about the ban on writing utensils, and ready to deal with it.

"I want us to do an in-person run-through of local safety procedures, and give you all a chance to ask questions, while we can speak freely. Most of the time we don't bother with the cover, just use double-talk and sarcasm, which you'll get the hang of pretty quickly. As long as the secret police aren't already trying to bring you in, they'll accept even the flimsiest excuse not to arrest you. None of them want to deal with the paperwork."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

After a day of settling in and unpacking, it's time to get the new arrivals down to the chapel.

With all the other local mysteries that are more directly related to his own fields of interest, Carlos has lost track of just how many exotic biological samples the team has rounded up. Introducing the bio specialists to the collection is an eye-opening awakening. They have a ton of stuff.

For the bio specialists themselves, or at least for the more relaxed Li Hua and Mateo, opening the bio-sample fridge and the climate-controlled records room is like escorting kids into a candy shop and telling them to go wild.

Geneticist Li Hua is quickly enraptured with a set of molted feathers from Hiram McDaniels's wings. "These are incredible! He's a dragon, you say? These match our current theories about prehistoric therapods...but it's likely to be convergent evolution, because in the DNA samples you've released, the nucleotides themselves were completely different from the monomers in our-world cells. I'll want to see if I can find any analogous sequences...."

And biochemist Mateo is drawn to the samples (requested by Adriana from Night Vale's strong yet troubled talking-tarantula community) of otherworldly spider urine. "If you didn't have this already, it was going to be my first request. Obviously these creatures are able to metabolize something in this world, or they wouldn't stay alive here for long, but there's no reason to assume it's carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids without confirming tests...."

The multi-talented Köhler pages through the collected photos of the Glow Cloud, developed both with and without the Asriel emulsion. He doesn't speak to the rest of them, just murmurs occasionally to his binturong daemon, short phrases he doesn't even have to finish before she nods or disagrees.

Carlos stays in the room for the moment; none of these people need their work supervised, but some of them might have procedural questions, or just want directions to the nearest good coffee place. In the meantime, he deletes another round of going-to-hell emails (the good news is, those seem to be slowing down now), politely declines a request to speak at a physics conference in Cathay just over a week from now (do they expect him to put together a serious presentation that fast? What is he, a miracle worker?), and starts reading the latest status report from the control team in Desert Bluffs.

At last Köhler addresses Carlos. "Who took these photograms? I would like to speak with him."

"Them, actually," says Carlos. "Brad, one of our grad students, and Fleur, his adviser. They're both working in the building today. Let me see if they're finished in the darkroom yet."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Köhler doesn't waste time telling the pair how interesting their work is, just cuts straight to the chase. "This entity. Is it sapient itself, or a creation being remotely controlled?"

Brad, the one he's addressing, looks startled — and no wonder, because not even Carlos has thought to ask that question. "Ah...sapient? We think. I'm not sure what tests you could run...oh, but it has a Rusakov rating that tracks with adult sapient creatures! And its child has a correspondingly lower rating, presumably because it hasn't done the equivalent of settling yet."

"And you have reason to believe these ratings are consistent across worlds?"

"Yes! Our research with other species, the ones from completely different worlds, shows a distinct correlation."

"Are you controlling for size?"

Carlos could answer this one: yes, but there are complicating factors. For instance, Hiram McDaniels has five separate intelligences sharing one body, and there's no easy way to get their Rusakov ratings independently, nor do they have a single 18-foot-tall 3600-pound one-headed dragon to use as a baseline. (Their only other multi-headed research prospect, Michael Sandero, makes an equally inconclusive case study. His Rusakov rating is substantially higher than the average for his age and size, but there's no telling how much of that comes from the second head, and how much comes from his being a "creation" of that sapient lightning bolt.)

It isn't Fleur's field, but she could probably outline the basics too. Brad's handle on it is shakier. "Well...even if you control for age, there's only a mild correlation between physical mass and Rusakov rating...."

Köhler's face is grim, like he's judging a murder trial or something instead of grilling an optical-physics grad student about quantum-physics processes. "Yes, I know this."

"We have some charts!" exclaims Brad. "Raw data. Graphs. Would you like to look at those?"

"I would like that very much."

Brad gets up, swings onto his crutches, and walk-hops across the hall toward the ordinater room.

"We also have photograms of the Glow Cloud alongside other sapient beings, for comparative purposes," says Fleur, "if you would like —"

"I will wait for the charts," says Köhler briskly.

Carlos shares a sympathetic look with Fleur, then excuses himself and ducks across the hall.

Brad is sitting at the ordinater nearest the door, his golden hamster daemon at her usual post in his shirt pocket. "Hey there," says Carlos, leaning against the desk next to his crutches. "Do me a favor, all right? When he asks you the tough questions, or even just the moderately-challenging ones...redirect him to Fleur."

"He hasn't asked anything I can't answer," protests Brad. "Just because I haven't defended my thesis yet, that doesn't mean I don't understand what I'm doing! I don't want Dr. Köhler to get the idea I still have to lean on my adviser for everything."

"Brad. He's not focusing on you because he thinks you're inexperienced and wants to keep you on your toes. He's focusing on you over Fleur because you're the white guy."

The student looks up at him in surprise. "What? No, that can't be right. He knows which ones of us have all the letters after our names, and which don't. A-anyway, people don't do that. Do they?"

"Trust me," says Carlos.

Brad swallows, face falling.

"Listen, I'm not asking you to call him out and accuse him of being sexist or racist," adds Carlos. "He's a big name in the field, he's got an intimidating presence, we're a small team and you don't want to feel like you're stirring up drama...I understand. I don't want that either. Just point out, in a nice mild respectful way, that Fleur knows the things he wants to know. Can you do that?"

A complicated series of expressions crosses the younger man's face.

"Brad...?"

"I was just thinking...even if Köhler gets mad at me, it's not like he can do something worse than shoot me," admits Brad. "And then I thought maybe I shouldn't bring all that up around you, 'cause it might make things weird."

Carlos raises his eyebrows. "If there's one thing I don't want any of you to worry about on my behalf, it's that you are going to be the ones making things weird."

It gets him a self-conscious laugh. "Okay. I can point him to Fleur."

"Thanks."

A faint sound reaches both their ears: the doorbell ringing downstairs.

"Speaking of weird," says Carlos, spirits lifting in spite of himself. "Let me go answer that."

It's the last introduction he has on his schedule for today. Since the City Council hasn't managed to announce any last-minute town meetings on behalf of the new experimental theologians, he needs to at least be sure they meet Cecil.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

After all the embarrassing yelling about mountains yesterday, Carlos tries to brace himself for whatever ridiculous outfit he's going to have to explain to the new arrivals.

Turns out he needn't have worried. All Cecil's wearing today is a sleeveless black tunic with a fringed hem, dark denim jeans, and black-and-white spats polished to such a shine that the general grit of the desert environment hasn't worn it off yet. He doesn't even have a stupid hat.

"Come in, come in," says Carlos, waving both Cecil and Khoshekh inside. Khoshekh isn't floating at the moment; Carlos sets Isaña down on the floor so the daemons can touch noses in greeting. "It's nice that you both could make it."

"Well, we did drive," says Cecil reasonably. "Didn't want to risk the bus being late."

And if Cecil and Khoshekh have been together and in four-eye all morning, that might explain Cecil's uncharacteristic color-coordination. "The new experimental theologians are in the sample room upstairs. They're in the middle of something right now, though, so...would you like to see the experiments I've been doing with the clocks?"

"Mmm, sounds boring," says Khoshekh, trotting with his disconcerting diamond-legged gait to the nearest door and poking his nose in. "What's in here?"

"Khoshekh!" exclaims Cecil. "Manners!"

"He can look around on his own if he wants," says Carlos. Out of generosity towards Khoshekh, not just because he wants Köhler, Mateo, and Li Hua to be suitably impressed with Cecil's range. "As long as you don't open any closed doors, and don't touch anything that might conceivably be part of an experiment. Which means...don't touch anything, pretty much."

The otherworldly margay purrs, rubs his face possessively against Cecil's legs a couple of times, and takes off, tail sticking up in the air like a banner.

So Carlos and Isaña show Cecil alone into their office. They have almost two dozen glass jars now with the grey sludge from various clocks and watches, neatly labeled by make, model, and source. On the corkboard next to the jar shelf, there's a large printed map of Night Vale with pins stuck in it, and several Asriel-emulsion photos of various groupings of sludge.

Right now Cecil won't get much out of the maps or the photos, so Carlos focuses on the samples themselves. "We still don't know how organic these are. Hopefully the new team members will be able to shed some light on that," he says, taking down the jar with the biggest lump: the one that appears to be growing not only hair, but also teeth. "This one has a Rusakov rating comparable to...let's say, a rabbit, of the same size."

"Huh," says Cecil, peering at it. "Does that mean it's as intelligent as a rabbit?"

"Not necessarily. A carved rock or a piece of pottery this size would have an even higher Rusakov rating, because it was shaped with conscious intent. So it could mean that this was changed by a sapient being, and then reverted partially back to its natural state...or that it was changed by a semi-sapient being...or, um, for it to be as intelligent as a rabbit is a distinct possibility."

Cecil lights up. "Really? Did I just do some experimental theology?"

"There's a lot more to our work than that," says Carlos. He doesn't want people to get the impression that what they do here at the chapel starts and stops at wild guessing (even if, half the time, it does). "But, well, making hypotheses from observation is the first step in experimental theology."

He puts the jar back on the shelf, and directs Cecil's attention to the printout with the pins.

"This is a map — the pins are marking the locations of the reports people have sent me about the timepieces in their homes. Lots of watches, a bunch of different wall clocks, two grandfather clocks, a cuckoo clock...I know you can't see the actual map right now, but I was hoping maybe you could point me in the general direction of something. There's a clock tower in town, right? I hear it every once in a while, but I've never seen it."

"That's hardly surprising," says Cecil. "It is invisible, after all."

"Ah." Of course. Invisible clock towers. Why not? "But you know where it is, right? Even if it can't be seen, people must walk into it sometimes."

"Very rarely. It tends to teleport out of the way."

"Teleport," echoes Carlos.

"Yes? It means...to instantly transport —"

Honestly, Carlos knows what teleporting is, that's not the issue here —

— and Cecil staggers, grabbing Carlos's shoulder for support, gasping for air like something just knocked the breath out of him.

Carlos doesn't waste a second on doubt. As much as Cecil gushes over him in uncomfortable and dubiously-appropriate ways, he's only ever touched Carlos for serious medical reasons. "Cecil! What's wrong?"

"Khoshekh —"

"Where is he? Sit down — I'll go find him." Carlos tries to guide Cecil to his desk chair.

"No — I'm coming," pants Cecil, though his eyes are wide and his normally warm brown skin has gone ashy. "Above us."

He recovers a little as Carlos helps him up the stairs, still leaning heavily on Carlos's shoulder but moving fast and breathing more steadily. Isaña follows, using the narrow textured slope that runs parallel to the steps for daemons too small and flightless to climb them unaided. A few more directions, and they burst into the sample room, where new and old team members alike are gathered in a huddle in the middle of the tables.

Li Hua spots them first. "Carlos! You'll never guess what just flew in here!"

"I bet I can," counters Carlos. He can see the thick fur of Dr. Köhler's binturong daemon in the center of it all now; she's more than large enough to pounce and pin a Khoshekh-sized animal...and there's the striped flick of Khoshekh's tail. "Let him go!"

"Ah, Dr. Ramirez," says Köhler as they close in. "Come and see. This bone structure, has your team seen anything like —"

"Köhler, that's this man's daemon you're holding down! We can talk after you let him go."

Köhler looks from the distressed Cecil to the creature trapped by his own daemon's paws...and the binturong must do something, a faint jab of claws amidst the whirl of fur, because Cecil gasps again, fingers digging an iron grip into Carlos's shoulder.

She lets Khoshekh go in the next second, so Carlos doesn't have a chance to reprimand Köhler for the ruthless (if efficient) way of getting confirming evidence. He has to keep looking out for Cecil, to make sure he doesn't fall over as he lets go of Carlos to catch the margay leaping (flying?) into his arms.

Cecil drops into the nearest chair, holding Khoshekh to his chest, panting heavily.

"Well!" says Carlos. "Now that we've had that auspicious beginning...everyone, this is Cecil Palmero, the man I've mentioned who works on the radio. Cecil, this is Li Hua, Mateo, and...Dr. Köhler." Their longstanding team informality is just never going to extend to calling him Keith.

Polite greetings are exchanged all around. In the process it becomes clear to Carlos that Brad and Fleur, while familiar with Cecil, are actually meeting Khoshekh for the first time...which explains why they didn't intervene on his behalf. Now that he thinks about it, as far as he knows, the other original team members haven't met Khoshekh either. He should probably do something about that.

"On the radio," says Köhler thoughtfully, after a brief greeting and a briefer apology. "The programming yesterday, on the subject of mountains. Is that your kind of work?"

"Pfft," says Cecil, who has apparently recovered enough to be smug. "Mountains. More like nothings, am I right?"

Oh, good lord.

Carlos has got to redirect this conversation. Immediately. And there's only one ironclad way he can think of, so he goes for it: "Cecil, are you doing anything this Saturday?"

Dead silence.

"No-ooo...!" says Cecil at last, making the word at least five syllables long and half an octave tall. "Nothing I cannot reschedule! Why do you ask?"

"Because there's somewhere I need to take you, and it's going to be a bit of a drive. Clear your schedule. Khoshekh's too," orders Carlos. To the other team members present, he adds, "I'm calling dibs on the hybrid that day. Also, the cooler. We'll be packing lunch."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Long after Cecil has gone, but well before what's shaping up to be a record-late sunset, the remaining three team members get back to the chapel. The gossip spreads fast.

Reactions are pretty predictable. Adriana says something in Muscogee that Carlos doesn't understand a word of but that sounds absolutely filthy anyway; Li Hua asks her a question, also in halting Muscogee, and Adriana explains that it's not City-Council-mandated, it's just a rule they have about teasing Carlos. Gerald has never been much of a tease, but Carlos overhears him murmuring something to his musk-ox daemon about "young love."

Brad looks nervous and says nothing, in either English or Spanish. Mateo looks carefully blank and says nothing, in either English, Spanish, or the Muscogee he would be required to use. Fleur, too, avoids voicing any of her thoughts out loud, although Carlos keeps catching her looking alternately worried and deeply endeared.

Henriette...pulls him into his office for a safety lecture. It's even in Spanish, so he can't dismiss her for not following the language rules, though it would be a stretch to call it teasing. "If you seriously end up dating this man, remember to watch your back. And always, always let someone on the team know where you're going, when you'll be back, and, if you can't make it as planned, what's changed."

"It's not a date," says Carlos, for the umpteenth time. "I swear, it isn't."

"Spending a lot of alone time with him in any capacity, then."

"Listen, I'm not planning to suspend any of our usual safety protocols, no matter what...and since when are you worried about Cecil being dangerous? You were always on the side of trusting him."

"I don't think he's malicious," says Henriette, sitting in the spare chair, running her fingers through her alpine-marmot daemon's fur. "But he is...very Night Vale, in a way that none of us are ever going to pull off. The last thing I want is for you to die because he...I don't know, walked under a maple tree on a Tuesday, and just let you follow him without explaining that it stabs anyone who doesn't do the supplicatory chants first."

It's not an unfair point. Carlos promises he'll be careful.

Köhler only makes a brisk comment about how none of them should be fraternizing with the locals in a way that jeopardizes their focus. When Carlos repeats the not-a-date clause, he seems happy (for a very reserved value of "happy") to let the whole subject drop.

(And Isaña whispers, "Are we going to tell him it's —?"

"We're not going to hide it," says Carlos. "But what are the odds that it's going to come up in conversation? Let's be realistic.")

The first wave of team members is packing up to head home for the night, and Carlos is re-checking the salt circles around his various bits of timepiece glurge, when Li Hua knocks on his doorframe. "Hey, boss? Blue gyropters mean Sheriff's secret police, right?"

"That's right."

"Are we expecting a couple of them to be parked in our front yard?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The pilots of the blue gyropters are a lot friendlier than...than...something Carlos can't remember, slipping out of his mind when he tries to think about it. The balaclava-clad man in black who steps forward to meet them has a mongoose daemon and a rough Spanish drawl; Carlos nods in greeting. "Evening, Officer. Promotion from bus duty?"

"Quite right, Dr. Perfecto," says the officer pleasantly. "I do hate to bother you all on this fine evening, but we're out here to pick up one of your team members, in accordance with new City Council protocol."

Carlos folds his arms, trying to look casual, but the kind of casual where it doesn't mean you won't punch someone if necessary. "And what protocol would that be, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Well, now, normally I would mind very much. But in this case, you ought to know, being as how you were specifically informed."

"There was attempted delivery of a City Council message yesterday," says Carlos. "I'm afraid it bounced. Would you like to try again later?"

"We are on a bit of a deadline, Doctor," says the officer. "In accordance with long-standing City Council protocol...why, would you look at that! I do believe here comes your message."

Sure enough, there's another albino zombi-child coming out of Big Rico's, holding its daemon (a dwarf octopus, in a plastic bag full of water) in one hand and some kind of missive in the other. The child's pace is unhurried, and Carlos doesn't want to abandon his spot between the blue gyropters and the rest of his team, so he waits with increasing concern for it to reach him.

At last, out of patience, Isaña runs a full nine-and-a-half feet forward and sits up on her hind legs.

The child hands over the message and stops walking; Isaña takes it in her mouth and rushes it back to Carlos. It's a piece of cloth, off-white, cross-stitched with red and violet letters:

By order of the Night Vale Concejo Municipal, all Magisterium agents operating within town limits will be re-educated until they recognize the non-existence of Carlos el Teólogo Experimental, or, in the event that his non-existence becomes cognitively unsustainable, recognize his complete non-importance to any plans, goals, schemes, missions, or operations whose outcomes they support.

Cogi Qui Potest Nescit Mori.

"I...appreciate the thought," says Carlos tentatively. Is there any specific etiquette for thanking someone who's just promised to invade and wreak havoc within other people's brains on your behalf? If so, he should probably learn it. "But I'm afraid I still don't understand what this has to do with my team."

The officer with the mongoose daemon shakes his head. "S'pose it's like Mr. Palmero says: you're a smart man, but there's things you just don't get. We're here to pick up the team member who's also an undercover Magisterium agent."

"What?"

"Oh, so you didn't know?" adds a familiar voice. Khoshekh is floating in the air over by the windows to Carlos's left, about four feet off the ground, paws curled up under him. Has he been there this whole time? "That makes sense. We did think it was an odd choice, but, not having run any experimental theology projects ourselves, we didn't feel qualified to second-guess it."

This, Carlos thinks, is exactly the kind of thing Henriette was worried about. He's very Night Vale. "You're the ones who looked this up? You've known since they got here, and you didn't think to tell me? Which of them is it?"

"The big one. With the hair. Not that it compares to your hair, of course."

Mateo. Carlos curses under his breath, massaging his brow with his fingertips. His first try at hiring people since he really staked out a position against the Magisterium, and he picked up a plant? How many did they throw in the pool? Alternately: how gullible is he?

"Will you be wanting us to bring him back here after, Dr. Perfecto?" asks the officer. "Or would you rather we drop him off at the aerodock with a mysterious compulsion to go home?"

Carlos can't believe he's saying this, but..."You'll leave all his theological expertise intact, right?"

"That's right, Doctor."

"Then, what the hell, sure. Bring him back to the chapel. Or the rentals. Wherever Henriette is at the time." He leads the man with the mongoose daemon and a couple of other secret police officers inside, ushering them past the team's wary newcomers and confused old hands. "Hey, everyone. I don't know how much of that you all caught, but the short version is...congratulations, Henriette, as far as Mateo is concerned, you just got promoted to project chaplain."

Chapter Text

On Friday morning, Li Hua accompanies Carlos down to Point E: the house that doesn't exist. Carlos tries to casually suggest that Li Hua could earn the team's unending adulation if she did something that frankly should be totally easy, such as going up and knocking on the door.

The geneticist doesn't buy it for a second. "I don't know what you're afraid of, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to take it seriously."

"Well, it was worth a shot," sighs Carlos, picking up Isaña to lift her back into the hybrid. "All right, let's go see John Peters and get that sample of imaginary corn you wanted."

Li Hua, who has apparently been taking Carlos's fashion sense seriously too, swings into the passenger seat and tucks her long white chapel coat in after her. She's been mirroring a lot of the team's little habits like that. Carlos isn't sure whether she assumes things like this are genuine Night Vale protective rituals, or whether she's just trying to fit in.

Switching on the dashboard snowman, though...that's a deliberate bit of self-defense. She's picking the important things up fast. "Out of curiosity, do you know when Mateo will be back?"

"It depends," says Carlos. "They took one person on our team for re-education early on, and sent him back the next morning. Later they tried to use what I assume was the same programming on me, but it didn't take. It was a few days before they let me go."

Letting her wren daemon perch on her forearm, Li Hua says, "Can I ask what it was like?"

"Painful." That about sums it up. Carlos really doesn't want to go over the details, especially not with someone he's just met, whose respect he's still trying to establish. (Nor does he want to think too hard about how casually he handed Mateo over, at the end. The Magisterium were the ones who wanted to play hardball; he's going to have to meet them at their level. Guilting himself about it would be a waste of time. Right?)

"No, I mean, the imprisonment conditions. What are the cells like? Do they feed you, or are malnutrition and starvation part of their game?"

Oh. She doesn't want the emotional torment; she wants practical data. This, Carlos can handle. "They're like one-bedroom hotel rooms, believe it or not. The ones I was in had minifridges, so yes, there was food...."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Friday evening, Henriette comes home from a beer run and Carlos helps her put the surplus away. They're rearranging the stuff in the fridge to make room when Henriette pulls out an unfamiliar blue Tupperware container, striped with sticky white label tape. "Have you ever seen this before?"

"Don't think so, no." Carlos adjusts his glasses to get a better look. Everyone on the team has commandeered the label maker at times to mark ownership of their leftovers, but initials and a date are all they bother with. This looks like enough label to write an entire message....

Carlos,

I found this in your new friend's room. You know, the one with the hair? Not as nice as your hair, but still. Anyway, it was unlabeled, and I remembered that hydrangea seeds can be toxic if too many are accidentally ingested, so, for safe keeping, I decided to put them in your fridge.

Also, I have fixed the arrangement of your bookshelf again. The books in the top row were just slightly too wide to all squeeze in there, so I took out the last three pages of each one, and now they fit. I hope you didn't need the entire index to Origins of the General Theory of Alethiometry.

Good luck on the not-date tomorrow! (It is still officially not a date at this point, right? Because if it was a date, then you would have paperwork to fill out. Just a friendly reminder.)

It's all in Spanish except for the title of Dr. Belacqua's book, and signed ASR 2013-02-10. "Anciana Sin Rostro," says Carlos out loud.

Henriette and her alpine marmot daemon share a confused look. "Old woman without a...face?"

Carlos nods. "She lives in our home. Well, everybody's homes, as far as I can tell. And apparently she's been protecting some or all of us from attempted poisoning...." He raises his voice. "...which is appreciated, but I still wish she would quit rearranging my books!"

Henriette considers this, then pulls a bottle of Rocky Mountain Red out of the nearest six-pack. "You gonna need one of these?"

Carlos politely declines. "Doesn't do much for me, I'm afraid. Besides...I'd rather not be hung over tomorrow."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Saturday dawns bright and early. (Which is unusual, because while the sunsets are all over the place, most of the dawns they've observed have been on time.)

"So," says Isaña, as Carlos hefts the cooler into the back seat of the hybrid. "We're really doing this."

"We are really doing this," confirms Carlos. He has the directions all printed; he has drinks, sliced fruit, and a couple of handmade tortilla wraps all packed; he isn't exactly dressed up, but he's wearing a classy Northern Lights T-shirt, and new socks, and his nicest chapel coat.

They have a nice easy drive over to Cecil's apartment building. He parks on the street, and Cecil and Khoshekh come out the door before he has a chance to call up: skipping and floating, respectively. Cecil is wearing a red cowboy shirt with embroidered white flowers and more fringe than any human being could possibly need, argyle leggings, and gold shoes that for some reason are covered with spikes. Carlos doesn't even ask.

He does, however, lean out the rolled-down window and nod to the boxes in Cecil's arms. "What are you bringing?"

"Lunch!" says Cecil brightly. "You said you'd have a cooler, right?"

"Well, yes — it's in back — but Cecil, I made enough for both of us."

"Really? So did I!"

And Carlos's mother raised him better than to turn down handmade food. Even if he isn't sure Cecil's taste in lunch is any less questionable than his taste in fashion. "In that case...there should be enough room. Go ahead and throw them in. At least we know we won't go hungry, right?"

"Hear hear," says Cecil. "As long as we don't get trapped in any rogue temporal phenomena stretching for, oh, two days or more."

Their daemons sit in back next to the cooler, Khoshekh sprawling across the seat at a friendly but not overly-friendly distance from Isaña (who has the directions), while Cecil ends up in the passenger seat. One of the Carlsberg snowmen, currently powered off, bobbles on the dashboard as they hit the streets.

"This is so cute," remarks Cecil of the snowman. "Where did you get it?"

"Gift from the Carlsbergs. I think Renée made most of it, but, you know, I assume Steve...helped." If Steve routinely hands out government-signal jamming devices, that should be enough to clue Cecil in, right?

"That Steve Carlsberg. Of course he would have to interfere in his child's craft projects," says Cecil darkly. "And such an imaginative child she is on her own! Look at this design. Isn't it creative?"

"It's a pretty standard snowman," says Carlos.

"Exactly!"

"You do understand that snow is real, right?"

"Of course, Carlos," huffs Cecil. "All I'm saying is that Renée has never seen it in person. I may be a bit of a homebody, but I have been to other parts of the world. Why, in college I spent a whole semester backpacking across Europe. There was plenty of snow in Finland, let me tell you!"

"...Finland?"

"Don't tell me you don't know your Nordic countries."

"I know Lapland and Österland, but I've never heard of any place called Finland," says Carlos. "And if it's another country like Brazil, I don't know why you would expect me to."

"Stirring Finland! A nation of traditional epic poems and internationally-renowned hard rock," says Cecil, unbothered by Carlos's defensiveness. "The scenery is breathtaking — even more so when you get the auroras at night — and if you come at the right time of year, you can participate in the charming Finnish festival of renewing the spells that keep the lutefisk from transforming back into the cosmic deep-sea horrors that were caged into those forms so long ago."

(Carlos has never heard of lutefisk either, but he's less sure whether this one is Cecil's problem or his own.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

When they get past the Moebius-strip highway that loops town and onto the interstate, the silhouette of anything related to Night Vale dwindles into invisibility behind them. It's nothing but scrublands for miles in this direction, flat unchanging scenery from horizon to horizon: not even a few cacti or the occasional large rock to break up the pattern of low bushes and dry, brown grass.

"Not that I don't absolutely trust you, Carlos," says Cecil, "but are you ever going to tell me where this little trip is leading?"

"Just past Kinlání." It's the biggest city for miles; that should be enough to give Cecil a sense of direction.

"Oh, I see. You know, it's funny, I've never been? You spend your whole life living close to a place, and somehow it doesn't seem exotic enough to visit as a tourist, even though I'm sure it's lovely."

Carlos restrains himself from offering to stop in Kinlání with Cecil for a while before they head back home. That would be unrelated to the purpose of this trip. Not to mention, suspiciously date-y. "All I know about it is that it has the main station for the Hispania Nova Naval Observatory. A few years back I wrote a paper with someone who worked there."

"Gosh," breathes Cecil. "What was it about?"

"Deep-space movement of Rusakov particles. I don't know if you've heard, but there's a lot of concern about whether astronauts' health would suffer on long-term space missions because the ambient Rusakov concentration is so low. Our findings indicate that, unlike heat, Rusakov particles can be effectively dispersed through a vacuum...but for a team that's actively researching and creating, which keeps the particles attracted to them, the risk of losing a medically significant amount is limited."

Did he explain that well? Was it too jargon-y...?

"Plus, a team actively researching and creating will generate more Rusakov particles," says Cecil. "Could the dispersal rate be so low that a team of astronauts would return to Earth with a higher Rusakov concentration than they started with?"

Okay, evidently Carlos didn't have to worry about Cecil not following this one. "In theory, yes! But we're never going to be completely certain until it happens. So, you accept Dr. Belacqua's theory of Rusakov origin?"

"Don't you?"

"Oh, of course! But it's the one major plank in her theology that hasn't been substantiated without a shadow of a doubt. And some of its detractors are coming from an understandable place, considering how it's been co-opted...."

(Every few years there's a racial/ethnic supremacist group claiming to have "proved" that the targets of their particular hatred just happen to generate fewer Rusakov particles than they do. Dr. Belacqua thought it was bunk, and said so more than once before her death, but that hasn't stopped people from trying it.)

"The people who co-opt experimental theology for their own purposes would happily co-opt whatever fell within their reach," says Cecil solemnly. "It is not a flaw of the theology."

"That's certainly true."

"Besides, when I asked the alethiometer that one time, it was very clear that that was where Dust came from."

Carlos must be getting used to Cecil throwing this kind of bombshell at him, because he just groans. "You couldn't have said that earlier? For a newsman, you sure know how to bury the lede sometimes."

"It's your field!" protests Cecil. "For an experimental theologian, you sure don't know basic facts sometimes."

"Not knowing things is a fundamental part of being an experimental theologian," says Carlos primly. He knows Cecil's only teasing (and he's teasing Cecil, a disorienting feeling), but he can't help defending his profession. "What symbols did the alethiometer use for that answer? Do you remember?"

"Sure, I remember this one. It was all pretty top-level meanings." A glance to the side reveals Cecil sitting back against the headrest, steepling his fingers. "The Bird first, and then quite a lot of the Cauldron, the Lute, the Beehive, the Candle, the Cornucopia, and the Sun."

"So, humans — or rather, all beings with souls," interprets Carlos. It's been a while since he had that poster of the symbols on his dorm room wall, but he should be able to remember the first few meanings of each one. "And we do it by...creating things, music, productive work...faith?...hospitality, and...I don't know about the last one."

"Close! The Lute was covering all sorts of creative, thoughtful verbal works. Music, poetry, rhetoric, oratory...meaningful communication, let's call it. The Candle in this case was for learning." Which, right, Carlos should have remembered; the alethiometer's idea of faith is linked with learning. (Blind obedience is a separate concept, over on the Marionette.) "And the Sun overlapped with that — it was about seeing truth, and then illuminating it for others."

All of which tracks with Dr. Belacqua's description, however theologically un-quantifiable, of the processes that generate Dust. "It all sounds so profound."

"Seems simple enough to me. The Sun is for seeing things," says Cecil, which wasn't exactly Carlos's point, but oh well. "What would you rather...."

He picks up the dashboard snowman and switches it on mid-sentence.

"...see by? The Moon? Sometimes it isn't even there!"

The asphalt is still long and straight and empty from horizon to horizon, so Carlos feels safe taking his eyes off the road for a moment to narrow them at Cecil.

"Public descriptions of the moon are forbidden by the City Council, and I want you to be able to answer freely," says Cecil with an innocent smile. "Of course, we're probably out of monitoring range by now anyway, but better safe than sorry! So, the moon. Have your astronomer colleagues done any studies on it? They must have, right?"

"Probably. What are you curious about?"

"Well, what's it made of?" asks Cecil. "Generally speaking, what is it? And when it disappears, where does it go?"

Carlos stares at him for a long, incredulous moment, then starts laughing.

Cecil slips into a moderate sulk. "I don't see what's so funny."

What's funny is that Cecil can be holding an intelligent, informed conversation on particle physics and then turn around and ask Carlos what the moon is. "Nothing," says Carlos, wiping tears from his eyes. "I just...I'm enjoying myself. That's all."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

When Carlos first started looking up the directions for this trip, he and Isaña fretted about how long they could avoid it getting awkward. But it doesn't get awkward. Cecil is easy to talk to, and an hour on the road turns into two, long stretches of highway occasionally broken by the clustered houses of another tiny desert town.

For a long time the view outside the window is nothing but brownish-green scrub. There's a stretch where even that fades, and it's red rocky plains as far as the eye can see. Then the plants return, now with patches of lush dark green, bushes that have the strength to spring up as high as the top of the car.

When they start seeing trees, Carlos thinks, that's when they'll know they're getting close. Humans are stubborn, they'll stake out a home and build a town pretty much anywhere, but you don't get a city unless there's water around.

Hills, too, start to rise in low slopes out of the ground between them and the horizon. The single lane going either direction multiplies into two. Other vehicles appear on either side, mostly freight trucks on cross-country journeys, but more than a few ordinary cars along with them. And in the far distance, faded to a dull blue by the layers of sky in between, the silhouettes of —

"Carlos, I've been meaning to ask: do you have plans for Valentine's Day yet?"

Ah. So this is when it gets awkward. "Not really. It's probably going to be a work day like any other."

"What...? You can't be intending to travel on Valentine's Day," says Cecil, aghast. "What are you thinking? Have you taken any precautions? Do you have sandbags? Boards for the windows? Please say your mandatory basement shelters are at least fully stocked!"

Still awkward, but not exactly for the reasons Carlos was expecting. He quizzes Cecil on what, exactly, is to be feared about Valentine's Day, and gets a series of tales of horror that sound much like Street Cleaning Day...except this time, Cecil can name specific buildings that collapsed, areas cordoned off while emergency crews tried to clean them up, people who died.

"I suppose in Trimountaine you have lots of sophisticated big-city municipal defense procedures," adds Cecil, "not to mention easy access to all the bottled water, canned food, and spare bloodstones a population could wish for, but Valentine's Day hits hard in an isolated little town like ours."

Carlos decides to save explaining Valentine's Day in Trimountaine for another time. "In that case, would you mind if we stopped in the city on the way back to pick some things up? And if you have other advice on what to get, I'd really appreciate it."

"It would be both my pleasure and my neighborly duty."

Apparently they're going to end up hanging out in Kinlání for a while after all.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A few minutes later, Cecil gets over his worried indignation enough to notice what they're driving towards.

"Carlos? What are those...things, in the distance?"

"Good question," says Carlos. "What do they look like?"

"I don't know. They're all dim. And sort of...lumpy," says Cecil uncertainly. "Khoshekh? Get up here and help me see this."

The margay floats up to hover behind Cecil's seat, his single front paw tucked over the shoulder.

"They look about the same size as that truck," adds Cecil, pointing to a green-and-white eighteen-wheeler going past them across the divider. "Maybe larger? Dark blue-ish. If they're a lot farther away than they look...is that Kinlání? I didn't think anything in the city was that tall. Or that lumpy."

Carlos hides a smile. "Let's get closer and see what happens."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Another few minutes. Trees are popping up all around now, clusters of increasingly-tall pines with trunks like telephone poles. Every so often the ground rises slightly on either side of them, the road sinking into a shallow trench carved to keep it flat.

Cecil is leaning on the dashboard now, pale eyes wider every time Carlos glances his way. "It keeps getting bigger," he says presently, voice rising in alarm. "We have to be really close to it now, right, Carlos? How much bigger can it get?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Carlos...?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Carlos, are those mountains?"

"I wouldn't want to prematurely bias your observations," says Carlos, but he isn't even pretending not to grin.

Cecil makes a strangled noise of frustration. "Carlos are you taking me to mountains?!"

"Results so far are inconclusive. Ow!" exclaims Carlos, as in the back Khoshekh lands next to Isaña and swats her only semi-playfully on the armor. "Knock that off or I am turning this car around."

"You cannot possibly turn around now," says Cecil, his stern tone belied by the way he's hunkered down in his seat and staring up at the peaks. "For one thing, I don't remember how long it's been since we last went through a town, but I will be needing a bathroom break long before we would get there."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They drive straight through downtown Kinlání, which is all low buildings and busy-but-driveable roads, overall more like Night Vale (minus the, well, Night-Vale-ness) than any of the big coastal cities Carlos is used to. Cecil lets out a tiny gasp every time they go through an intersection, when the mountains can be seen between the buildings.

At last they reach Carlos's destination: a large public park at the foot of the mountains. There's a nice recreation area at the entrance, with facilities that both Cecil and Carlos take advantage of, and then they're standing in the parking lot gazing up at the mountain range where it rises above the pines.

"They have a couple of hiking trails," says Carlos to break the silence. "Nice easy loops, short and not too steep, with great scenery. Or we could just find a nice place to sit in the grass and have a picnic. Whatever you feel like."

Cecil, now holding Khoshekh in his arms and still staring at the mountains, nods vaguely.

"Cecil...?"

"You want to eat while I look?" asks Khoshekh.

"S-sounds like a plan." Cecil lets him go; Khoshekh floats to the ground and trots off toward the park entrance, while Cecil circles back toward the car. "A picnic, you say? Let's picnic."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They end up staking out a lovely patch of a grassy field, the trail off to one side and a copse of pines to the other, in full view of the mountains. Carlos spreads out a picnic blanket while Cecil opens the cooler.

It turns out Cecil's boxed lunches are a lot fancier than Carlos's wraps. Sushi, sliced fruit on toothpicks, vegetables carved into little shapes..."Are these rice balls with cat faces?" asks Carlos, poking one of them with a fork.

"Do you like them?" asks Cecil hopefully. "It took forever to get the whiskers right."

"They're really cute. And what about this?" Carlos pokes one of the things in the shape of a tiny octopus.

"That's an octopus."

"I know, they're really detailed, but I mean, what are they carved out of?"

"...they aren't carved out of anything, Carlos. They're just marinated, seasoned baby octopus."

Carlos looks closer. So they are. "Where did you even get...you know what, never mind, I don't want to know."

He tries one: a weird flavor, but not unpleasant. He picks through the rest of the box slowly, trying the ingredients one by one and savoring the tastes, offering Isaña a few scraps of radish and strawberry so she can experience them firsthand. Cecil, meanwhile, practically devours his turkey wrap whole, then starts dismembering an orange. (Carlos is careful to look away when Cecil has to lick juice off his fingers.)

"So," says Cecil after a while. "Mountains. Real mountains. Gosh."

"Are they...everything you didn't think they would be?"

"Oh, more than!" exclaims Cecil. "We'll have to air a correction on the show. I don't know if you were listening, but earlier this week, we got pretty enthusiastic about —"

"I heard," says Carlos, trying to avoid another rush of secondhand embarrassment.

"And we'll certainly have to withdraw our recommendation that known mountain-believers be rounded up and kept in indefinite detention by the City Council."

Carlos stares at him. "Your what?"

"I know! It seems so inappropriate now."

"Cecil," says Carlos, failing to avoid a rush of despair. "At least tell me nobody was actually rounded up."

"Oh, nobody at all! Well. Hardly anybody. Only five people. Possibly seven by now, if the other two people on that list we sent the Council didn't escape town in time. It's a good thing you kept the purpose of this trip under wraps! You might have been caught up in the vigilante action too, if you'd gone around talking about real mountains before our correction went out."

Carlos pulls Isaña close to his leg. "You...a list...Cecil...!"

"It seemed like a good idea at the time!" protests Cecil. He takes a bite out of one of his own kitty-faced rice balls, chews and swallows, then continues: "Who knew their ridiculous and frankly laughable assertions would turn out to have some basis in fact?"

Carlos groans, burying his face in the palm of his free hand. This is insane. What possible justification could Cecil have for —

"Sure, if you were to deeply investigate the people on our list, you might find that they were all involved in last week's kidnapping attempt at Night Vale Elementary involving several children of known anti-government agitators. What are the odds, huh? But really, the mountain thing is — or was — much more prominent. If the Sheriff's secret police somehow get the idea that it's not worth their while to go after kids who are already unlucky enough to have awful, awful people like Steve Carlsberg for parents...well, that's their business."

— oh. Carlos's head snaps up. "Renée was almost kidnapped?"

"I know! You'd think someone would have had that idea earlier — it's about the only thing that could have kept him down, if it had worked. For all his many, vast, extensive flaws, Steve is not a wholly terrible parent."

Letting out an entirely different kind of groan, Carlos flops back on the grass: one arm flung behind his head as a makeshift pillow, the other pushing up his glasses and shielding his eyes from the sun. "Cecil Palmero, you give me the worst mood whiplash of anybody I have ever known."

"Do I?" asks Cecil. "Is that...good?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Other tourists pass by on the trail every once in a while: groups of runners, people walking dogs, families all done up in hiking boots and binoculars. Normal people. The kind of people who would probably freak out if they got close enough to see Cecil's absence of a daemon, which thankfully no one does.

At last Khoshekh reappears, jumping down from the nearest tree and trotting through the grass. "I touched the mountain," he reports to Cecil. "Definitely real."

Satisfied, Cecil picks up a cooked octopus by a single squishy tentacle and waves it around. Khoshekh rolls his eyes, but a few moments later starts batting at it anyway.

"Will you be okay to come into a store with me?" asks Carlos, his eyes on Khoshekh's single front paw. "A store in the city, I mean? I don't want to just leave you in the car, but people out here aren't used to Khoshekh, and I don't want anyone to be...overenthusiastic about studying his spine again."

"Oh, that reminds me." Cecil tosses the octopus in the air for Khoshekh to pounce. "Your new team member, the, ah, the overenthusiastic one...he called me at the station yesterday. Asked if we would be willing to sit for x-rays. Are those safe?"

It gives Carlos an unpleasant twinge. Not because it's unsafe, or because Köhler shouldn't take independent initiative. He's just used to it being his job to call Cecil. "Yes, they're safe, as long as you limit your exposure. It's just to look at your bones. I got x-rayed back when my wrist was broken, so they knew how to set it properly."

"That sounds reasonable," says Cecil. "I suppose you're right, though, we should be careful. Carlos, would you mind terribly keeping a secret for me?"

Carlos knows better than to give an unqualified yes. "As long as it doesn't endanger anyone on my team."

"Great! Do you see any sand around?"

"...No. Just dirt."

"Drat. I learned with sand." Cecil looks up at the peak of the mountain. "That's snow up there, right? How easy would it be to get up there?"

"Ridiculously hard. The trip would take a whole day all by itself. And you would need to be wearing much sturdier shoes," says Carlos sternly. What in the world does snow have to do with anything?

Cecil sighs. "Well, I suppose desert dirt could work in a pinch." And, to Khoshekh: "Come here, let's give it a try."

Carlos watches in bafflement as Cecil scoops up a small handful of dirt. Khoshekh takes a seat in front of his human and ducks his head, eyes closed. It's not a scared or subservient gesture, just a way of keeping the eyes protected — as Carlos realizes when Cecil blows the dirt over Khoshekh, while making a clicking sound deep in his throat.

"What did they do?" whispers Isaña.

"I don't have the faintest idea," murmurs Carlos in reply.

"What do you see when you look at Khoshekh?" asks Cecil.

Carlos opens his mouth to say the usual: feline form, pretty fur, unorthodox limb arrangement. Then he looks. Or rather, tries to look — his eyes can't quite focus on the place where the margay is sitting, or pick out more than a series of vague impressions. "I...don't," he says, slightly dazed. "Not really. There's a daemon...of a size...with a face that is probably normal...and, I can only assume, limbs."

It isn't a memory problem. He can still picture Khoshekh perfectly in his mind. He just can't resolve the same image in front of him.

"Oh, praise the beams, it worked," sighs Cecil. "We'll renew it before we go into the shopping center, just in case. Would you like to head out now?"

"Y-yes. That would be, um, reasonable."

They start packing up in earnest, Carlos folding up the blanket and Cecil gathering the remains of their lunches into the cooler. "I'm really not supposed to know how to do that," he says sheepishly. "But Mom insisted that I learn a few tricks for self-protection. It's like she always used to say: beware, be warned, be wary." He frowns. "Of course, Mom said that about everything, so you had to get used to interpreting what she was going for, but once in a while she meant it literally."

Carlos and Isaña share a look, both trying to figure out what kind of rule Cecil would be sheepish about breaking.

Isaña gets it first. "Witch-lore?"

"Right in one," purrs Khoshekh.

It takes Carlos serious concentration not to let the fact that Khoshekh just answered, and in the affirmative, slip right out of his head. "Cecil...your mother...?"

"Was a witch, yes," says Cecil. "Or possibly is a witch. It's difficult to be sure."

Honestly, Carlos should have guessed long ago. How many people with no connection to witch culture would even think of trying to separate themselves from their daemons? And no wonder it was Josie instead of some local teenager who used to babysit; no wonder she continues to look out for Cecil in his mother's absence. If a witch needs something, another witch will give it to her.

He almost suggests that Cecil ask the alethiometer about the missing Ms. Palmero, but thinks better of it. Of course Cecil would have done that already if he wanted to — so if he hasn't, that means if his mother is dead, he doesn't want to know. And that's his right, isn't it?

"Well, your secret is safe with us," Carlos says instead.

This time, Cecil doesn't even have to lick anything: his grateful smile alone makes Carlos's heart do several disconcerting little flips.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Bottled water, canned food, power bars, toilet paper: the first superstore they try has all of it. Carlos follows it up with a visit to a Home Depot, where they get some basic tools and a selection of sturdy tarps. He'd like to have something more heavy-duty to protect the windows, but the tiny hybrid would never have the space, even if he could afford it in the first place.

The money would have to come out of his own pocket. The grant committee would never understand why, in the middle of the desert, he wants to be reimbursed for hurricane shutters.

"Your houses don't come with reinforcement? That seems like an oversight," says Cecil, as their daemons squeeze into the space left in the back seat. "If I were you, I'd complain to the landlord."

As long as they're in town anyway, Carlos swings by a department store and picks up a sampler set of eighteen different watches. (The woman at the checkout looks at him like he's crazy. Can't really blame her.) He pries off the back of the novelty Hello Kitty watch standing right there in the parking lot, and finds...watch parts. Gears. A battery.

To do a really thorough experiment, he should dismember the whole set and record the results before taking them back to Night Vale and tracking the effects. But he can't keep Cecil here all night.

When they get out past the city limits again, Cecil cranes his neck to see the mountains through the back window, disappearing into the afternoon sky. "Mountains," he says for the umpteenth time, still in a tone of wonder. "Wow."

"They were pretty impressive," says Carlos, and means it.

"You said there was an observatory out here too," remembers Cecil. "Do you think that's the kind of thing worth visiting for? Maybe as an overnight stay?" There's a beat when he realizes how this sounds. "Oh, I didn't mean — not that you and I would, um, overnight, I just mean, in general —"

"It's definitely worth visiting, and yes, you'd want to go overnight," says Carlos, trying to skim past the awkwardness. "Although you can get a great view of the stars just by driving out into the scrublands for a bit, maybe with an amateur telescope on hand. When you're not right next to a town, there's almost zero light pollution."

"Yes, but the stars are more likely to be the real ones when seen from from Kinlání, right? Around home, we tend to get...extras."

"Extra stars?"

"Obviously some of them are alien spacecraft, or extremely localized meteor showers," says Cecil quickly. "But a lot of them appear to be stars, yes. And sometimes the regular ones go missing. It can make figuring out horoscopes very tricky, let me tell you!"

It gives Carlos a start to hear Cecil citing such a mundane bit of junk science. "Do you seriously believe in astrology?"

"Oh, no. The stars have much more interesting things to do than rearrange our little lives down here. But it's fun to think about, isn't it? Any time I'm out at night for a bit of recreational screaming in terror at the void of space, I check for Pisces — that's mine — and if all or most of it is still there, I usually feel better. How about you, what's your sign?"

"Um," says Carlos.

"If you don't know it, we can work it out. When's your birthday?"

What are the odds this would come up in conversation, indeed, thinks Carlos. Shouldn't have tempted fate. "No, I know it. Aquarius."

"The water-bearer! No wonder people in a desert town like you," says Cecil brightly. "So that means your birthday is...oh, gosh, it's coming right up, isn't it? Or did it just pass?"

Carlos sighs. "It's, um. Today."

"Really!"

"Really. February 11. As of eight twenty-one this morning, Eastern time, which corresponds to who-the-hell-knows in Night Vale time, I'm thirty-seven."

Cecil, at a sidelong glance, looks aghast. "You spent your whole birthday with me? And I didn't even get you anything!"

"You don't have to!" exclaims Carlos. "I mean...not that I don't like your gifts or anything....it's just, nobody else is sending me anything...and that's what I'm comfortable with! An experimental theologian is self-reliant...." And I had a wonderful time today, which is all I wanted.

"At least let me buy you a cupcake or something when we get back home," protests Cecil.

Carlos almost agrees before he comes up with a better idea. "How about this. For my present, you use the alethiometer to double-check that everyone left on my team has good, scholarly, non-homicidal intentions."

"Of course! But Carlos, you realize I would have done that anyway, any time." Cecil pauses. "I'm sorry I didn't realize to tell you about Mateo."

"None of us ended up dead because of it," says Carlos, "so let's call it water under the bridge."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

About an hour out from home, Cecil switches on the radio and finds NVCR. It's playing a song Carlos has never heard before, the singer backed by heavy-metal guitar with, of all things, a melodic string ensemble. When that one ends, it fades without pause or chatter to another, similar instruments in a minor key with no vocals at all.

"Is this...Finnish rock?" he guesses.

Cecil lights up. "You recognize it!"

Carlos has no idea how Cecil managed it, but he doesn't ask. He just switches off the dashboard snowman before turning up the volume.

Chapter Text

Sunday morning, Mateo shows up at the chapel. He looks much better than he did when the police carried his unconscious body to the gyropters, in freshly-laundered clothes with his glasses polished and his weasel daemon's golden fur all brushed out.

Most of the team, even Köhler, is there to meet him; they've been working on a fresh batch of the Asriel emulsion. Carlos notes their reactions, relieved but wary, so different from the pure delight they felt when Ichiro reappeared after his re-education. But everything was different back then. None of them had even fled town at that point.

"I'm not late, am I?" asks Mateo. "Is this a group project I should be helping with, or can I go take a crack at those spider samples?"

Under the table, Isaña nudges Henriette's alpine marmot daemon, reminding Henriette that the question is going to her. "No, it's all right, this is a regular project of the Rusakov particle physicists," she says. "We want you here to exercise your own specialties, not worry about getting Chemistry 101 lessons."

"Sure, of course. I think I knew that. And if anyone knows a good Cathay food place in the area, come find me around lunch time, okay?"

He turns to go.

"Mateo," calls Carlos.

The biologist looks at him in mild puzzlement. No recognition at all. "Sorry, do I know you?"

"That's Carlos Ramirez," says Henriette.

"Uh-huh...?" Mateo looks from one face to the next, as if he's waiting for the rest of the answer. "What's this guy doing here? Is he getting Chem 101?"

"I just wanted to know if you remember who interviewed you for this job," says Carlos.

A brief frown crosses Mateo's face, then fades back into mild-mannered disinterest. "Not coming to mind. I don't think it's important, though. You probably wouldn't know the name, anyway, unless you're really into the field."

"In that case, don't worry about it," says Carlos brightly. "Carry on with whatever you were doing, don't mind me."

And with a sigh of relief, he gets back to measuring out compounds.

It isn't until they've set the solution to simmer, which one or two people can monitor without much concentration, that Köhler approaches Carlos. His binturong daemon's thick-furred tail is lashing. "Dr. Ramirez, this is monstrous."

Tell me something I don't know, thinks Carlos, but in fairness, he probably doesn't look as horrified as he ought to. "No one is going to harass or take advantage of Mateo. Everybody knows that, right? And all the decisions that would have fallen to me will still fall to me, whether he notices or not."

"You are aware that that is not what I mean," says Köhler. "What has been done to that man is a cruelty — it is against all ethics — and to see you take such a casual attitude towards —"

"Dr. Köhler, I would ask you to remember that you are being monitored as we speak," says Carlos sharply. "And the members of the Sheriff's secret police assigned to this area are capable English interpreters, or have quick access to someone who is. So if you are about to suggest out loud that something they have done is not justified, please, take a moment to reconsider."

It doesn't answer any of Köhler's objections, but it does make him rethink fast. Good. The last thing Carlos wants is for someone on his team to be dragged off without reason.

"I can certainly imagine a less-than-patriotic person," he adds, choosing his words carefully, "who would have serious misgivings about the whole affair. Who thinks any kind of mental tampering on this level is a travesty, and wouldn't wish it on their worst enemy. On the other hand, this hypothetical person might reflect that the Magisterium has had a vague yet menacing agency operating in this town for decades, and should have some idea of the risks they're taking by now. Moreover, this person might be legitimately relieved that he doesn't have to worry about surviving another murder attempt."

"And you are certain he had murderous intent? On what evidence do you say this?"

"He did come in smuggling a known toxin," points out Henriette.

"Hydrangea seeds," counters Köhler. "Perhaps his only intent was to plant some hydrangeas."

"Night Vale has ways of figuring out a person's real intentions," says Carlos. He's glad the rest of the team already knows the details. It's delicate enough having Köhler question his authority without any of the others wondering if the man's misunderstandings are actually valid points.

"Dr. Ramirez, I would ask you to remember that a confession extracted under torture is meaningless."

"That isn't what I'm thinking of."

"You speak as if you are the hero of an adventure story. This is the real world, Doctor. Not everything can be a plot against your research and your safety. You have made some remarkable discoveries, but this does not make you the second coming of Lyra Belacqua."

"Tell you what," says Carlos. "Let's discuss this over lunch."

"Lunch?"

"You, me, and Li Hua. She's due back at the chapel around noon, so when she gets here, we'll all head over to Big Rico's and have a little talk."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

There aren't any mysterious hooded spectres dining at Big Rico's Pizza when Carlos and his new colleagues show up. He'd been hoping they could duck the surveillance by sitting near a group of spectres, where recording devices go wonky. No such luck; they'll have to do this the complicated way.

He signals for the other two to wait behind him, then leans over the counter and calls to one of the staff, "Afternoon, Monique! How's the radish today?"

Monique, a woman with Afro features but distinctly green skin that coordinates with her striped snake daemon, looks up from slicing pepperoni. "Not so good, Carlos. I wouldn't try it if I were you."

"In that case...how about the horseradish?"

Monique rolls her eyes. "Everyone makes that joke."

"I bet they do." It can't be long now until they change the code phrase.

Shunting the pepperoni aside and peeling off her thin plastic gloves, Monique waves for him to follow her behind the counter. "Tell you what. Why don't you come take a look for yourself?"

"Don't mind if I do." Carlos adjusts the messenger bag over his shoulder and nods for to the others to come along. "By the way, these are my new colleagues. I assure you, they have good taste."

He bends to scoop up Isaña when they get to the dark staircase, and takes the first few steps before he notices that Köhler and Li Hua have stopped at the top. "Tell us what you're leading us into," says Köhler, his binturong daemon rising up on her hind legs to take full advantage of her size.

"A perfectly respectable commercial establishment," says Carlos. "Nobody here is going to hurt you. Nobody here cares about you one way or the other, except in the sense that you are a customer and they want you to buy things."

Looking less than convinced, they follow him in. Köhler, who when asked about self-defense skills in his phone interview mentioned that he used to box, has his hands in loose fists. Li Hua subtly adjusts what Carlos assumes is a shoulder holster hidden under her chapel coat. In her own interview, she reported having steady aim with a handgun.

Carlos tries to look on the bright side. Sure, it means they don't totally trust him yet, but at least they're prepared.

The hidden basement space has dark wood paneling almost everywhere, swallowing up the light from the anbaric lamps in old-fashioned styles. Behind the bar, the menu is written on chalkboards mounted on the walls, because if you're going to break the law anyway you might as well enjoy the convenience of writing utensils while you're there. (Plus, chalk makes for easy-to-destroy evidence.) A few diners huddle over their plates as Carlos and the two new arrivals approach the bar.

"Let me know if you want any help reading the menu," Carlos tells the others. To the bartender, he pushes a couple dollars across the counter and adds, "I'll take a Mediterranean veggie on whole wheat. Hold the onions."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They end up in a booth near the corner of the wheat by-product speakeasy, the one that was cited by the Night Vale Council for Commerce the week of Street Cleaning Day, and that Big Rico himself absolutely promised to shut down, honest. Köhler and his binturong take up most of one side, so it's Carlos and Li Hua on the other, armadillo and wren daemons sitting on the table.

(Köhler ended up ordering a serving of falafel-stuffed pita bread. Li Hua just has a bowl of Waffle Crisp, cold milk in a small silver pitcher on the side.)

"There's something about this town that we haven't told you," says Carlos, while Köhler looks disagreeable and Li Hua butters a slice of complimentary bread. "Something that hasn't been shared with anyone outside Night Vale. Not our backers, not our department heads at Harvard, not our closest trusted family members. And you don't get to share it either. Not with the best researchers at Heidelberg. Not with anybody."

"And if we decide it this something is a condition we cannot work in?" presses Köhler.

"You won't. But as a general rule, you are both free to bail on this project for any reason. I'll back you up on any excuses you want to make to the rest of the world."

Li Hua frowns. "Is Mateo being told this?"

"Mateo is also getting the free-to-leave speech from Henriette. He isn't going to be told about this particular Night Vale secret...although it's no big deal if you forget and mention it around him by accident, because he won't know what you're talking about. Can I have your word that you'll keep it from the rest of the world?"

"You can," says Köhler.

"I promise," adds Li Hua.

They'd probably both go back on it in a heartbeat if it was the wrong kind of secret, but the promises are enough for Carlos to go on. He moves aside his sandwich, the bowl of bread, the salt and pepper shakers, and so on, until there's a clear spot in the center of the table.

Then he pulls the first photogram out of the folder in his messenger bag and tosses it down onto the dark wood surface.

Cecil. Holding the alethiometer, surrounded by glittering Dust, especially over that one point on his forehead.

Carlos gives them a moment to take it in, then tosses the next photo down on top of it. Then the next. Rusakov particles swarm around Cecil's hands as the last dial is set, and the needle begins to spin, marking out the answer one symbol at a time.

"That's...an alethiometer, right?" asks Li Hua, both she and her wren daemon looking keenly at the photos. It's not in her field, and without being prepared to see one, she wouldn't have had any reason to brush up on the details. "Aren't those extremely rare?"

"There are meant to be two left in the world," says Köhler hoarsely.

"One at Oxford, under heavy guard. One at Heidelberg, same," explains Carlos to Li Hua. "And one in Night Vale, in the keeping of Cecil Palmero. We don't know how long it's been here. We don't know how it's connected to all the other inexplicable phenomena in this town. But we do know that it's been accurate with every answer we've been able to verify."

"So that's how you knew about Mateo." Li Hua looks wary all over again. "What have you gotten from this thing about the rest of us?"

"Yesterday I asked Cecil to double-check that everyone else was here for the right reasons. You're all clear." Carlos has already explained this part to the team members who knew about the alethiometer as of last night. "He mentioned a few less-than-pure motives...fame, money, the desire to show up an old rival, that sort of thing...but he didn't tell me who they belong to. And that's just the sort of thing that means you're human, not that you're wrong for this project."

"How skillful are Palmero's interpretations?" asks Köhler, the only person on the team who had ever worked with an alethiometer before coming to Night Vale. "How much time does he spend with the Books of Reading?"

"Let me put it this way," says Carlos. "If anyone in this town was going to be the second coming of Lyra Belacqua...it would be Cecil."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The basement shelter under the larger rental house is well-equipped by the eve of Valentine's Day. Food and water. Flashlights and batteries. Sleeping bags and pillows. Stacks of extra toilet paper in the bathroom. Even a fully-charged power pack, in case the anbaric lines go down.

Carlos feels a little silly about this, but Cecil assured him that Valentine's Day starts promptly at midnight, so he instructs everyone to spend the night there. Gerald goes down early, wanting to settle with his musk ox daemon on the far side before other people start crowding into the space. Carlos stays upstairs long enough to listen to Cecil's show, which cuts away several times to PSAs about local emergency numbers and important safety tips, and takes it as his cue to turn in when he hears, "Good night, Night Vale. Stay safe, and good night."

He brushes his teeth, changes into a fresh set of clothes to sleep in, and gathers up a few things. His messenger bag, with the supplies usually in it. His Christmas presents. A good pair of running shoes. The framed print of his favorite Dr. Belacqua quote.

Before going down, he stops in the middle of a room and addresses the general air in Spanish. "I don't know if you're listening, and maybe you have your own plans when something like this happens...but if you want to join us, you're welcome to."

"Oh, I'll be all right," says a voice to his left.

She doesn't sound old. But sure enough, when he turns, he finds a woman with a stooped posture and entirely silver hair, wearing a long dress with an old-fashioned collar. The skin is drawn tight across her bony fingers, her neck, her...well, the front part of her skull, where the face should be, but isn't. Her daemon is held in her hands: a long milk-white salamander with no eyes.

"But thank you for offering," says the Faceless Old Woman who lives in Carlos's home.

"No trouble at all," says Carlos. "Listen, as long as I've got you here, would it be possible for you to return the pages you ripped out of my books?"

The Faceless Old Woman considers this. "I will make them into a sculpture," she decides, "and put it in a place where you will find it. Yes, you will certainly find it."

That seems to be the best Carlos is going to get out of her. "Thanks."

He makes his way down to where the only light is from the muted battery-powered lanterns tacked up on the walls, and picks his way past a snoring Mateo to an empty sleeping bag. Some of the others are bringing down the cushions or baskets their daemons sleep in; Carlos just crawls into his sleeping bag and pulls Isaña under his arm, and they both doze off together.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos doesn't know what woke him up. The shelter is quiet, nobody even snoring, just a lot of soft breathing under their makeshift night-lights.

Then it happens again, a low boom like a distant cannon.

He fumbles for his phone, pulls the sleeping bag up over his head, and wakes the device, squinting in the sudden dazzling brightness. February 14, 5:57 AM. No signal.

"Nothing we can do," whispers Isaña. "Assuming it's trouble at all. It could be a formal salute. Or fireworks."

Carlos doesn't believe it any more than she does, but he returns the phone to his pile of stuff and tries to get back to sleep.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Can we turn the lights up?"

"We should probably wait for...."

"Don't worry, I'm up," grumbles Adriana, the only one still in her sleeping bag. "Go ahead and have light."

Her iguana daemon crawls out of his basket and scoots into the bag with her, and she pulls the end of it over both their heads, as Henriette and Mateo switch the lamps near them to high.

Just because they're holed up in a shelter for the day doesn't mean they're going to let it go to waste. Brad and Fleur sit down with a hard copy of Brad's thesis, as well as an object that Carlos refuses to identify as an illegal red pen. Köhler gets out a large and well-thumbed book and starts looking through it; Carlos can't read German, but he suspects it's a translation of Dr. Belacqua's Origins of the General Theory of Alethiometry.

The rest of them, including Adriana when she finally gets up, break out various anbaric devices to do some work or (for the ones that connect to the household Internet, which still reaches down here) check their mail.

It's a strange situation, but it feels a lot like a slumber party or a camping trip, and a corresponding good humor spreads through the room. Gerald opens the first box of power bars and tosses them around to anyone who asks. Adriana and Li Hua sit together for a while, mostly talking shop as far as Carlos can hear, but sometimes breaking into less-than-professional giggles. Brad invites them all to quiz him on his thesis...and ends up answering questions like "Describe your thesis's dream date" and "If your thesis was a tree, what kind of tree would it be?"

Half of them are taking a break to sit around Henriette's computer and watch Futurama when there's a series of popping noises from upstairs, and all the gadgets plugged into wall outlets report that they're now running on battery.

"Power's out," says Gerald, though you don't need to be a former anbaric engineer to put that together. "If it's not back in an hour, we'll start taking turns with the power pack."

It comes back ten minutes later by the clock on Carlos's tablet. (Nine by the clock on his phone. Fourteen by Brad's. Only three according to Köhler's watch, though at least he doesn't take any convincing to believe that it's off.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Gerald isn't going to be moving around much if he doesn't have to (they even made sure he got a spot close to the bathroom), so Carlos and Isaña go to him. "I've been invited to present a paper at a conference this summer," says Carlos. "Or rather, I've been invited to present a lot of papers through the rest of the year, but this time it's a group I trust not to rubber-stamp whatever I send for the sake of the publicity. And I think our Rusakov structure model could be finished by the deadline. Are you interested?"

"Depends on where the conference is," jokes Gerald.

"How do you feel about Paris?"

"Why, I feel wonderful about Paris!"

"That's a shame, then, because it's not —"

A violent crunch makes the whole room shut up. It was outside, but sounded much too close for comfort. And either Carlos is being paranoid out of hypervigilance, or it was directly above them.

Henriette, in a shaky voice, breaks the silence. "Carlos, stop chewing."

Nervous giggles circle the room. Apparently everyone except Mateo (who's just confused) and Köhler (who barely glanced up from his book) thinks this is a wonderful joke.

"What?" demands Carlos. "Why is that funny?"

Gerald has the grace to look sheepish. "Well, ah, you can get a little loud sometimes, that's all."

Loud enough to be notable? Loud enough that everyone — even Li Hua, who's only eaten with him once, at lunch the other day — thinks it's a solid foundation for a joke? Apparently so. (Carlos would wish for the floor to open up and swallow him to save him the embarrassment, except that in Night Vale there's a nonzero chance of his wishes coming true.) "I will keep that in mind," he says, with as much wounded dignity as he can muster.

It's not like he eats around other people that much anyway, is it? And even when he goes home for visits, Ramirez mealtimes are typically so rowdy you can't hear yourself think, let alone the eating habits of the person next to you....

Oh, but he had lunch with Cecil the other day, and Adriana even told him once to be careful about eating anything solid in front of Cecil. He ate very slowly because of the unusual flavors; was that enough to keep him at a normal volume? No idea. All he can do is hope.

"It's nothing you should worry about," Gerald assures Carlos, as the rest of the room settles back into the work and conversations that were so rudely interrupted. "Why, everyone has a few bad habits. Now, what was that you were saying about the conference location?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

An hour into the fourth rolling blackout, and it shows no signs of coming back on. They try flipping coins to determine who gets to charge their devices first; when the coins keep landing on edges, they settle for rock-paper-scissors instead.

Carlos's tablet has great battery life, so he stays out of the game for the moment. Said tablet is miserable for editing papers, but he's on a submissions deadline. He even works straight through the next series of distant thundering booms.

By evening they're all getting antsy. Carlos spends a while pacing up and down the stairs, just for the chance to stretch his legs. Adriana plays Tetris, with the sound on, until Gerald snaps that the tiny explosions are driving everyone crazy. Mateo tries to take a nap. Fleur and Li Hua's bird daemons, the grackle and the wren respectively, race each other in circles through the air, which is cute...for the first five minutes.

"All right, it's getting late," says Carlos, after a dinner-ish meal involving (on his part) canned pears and sliced Spam. "Who wants to check the radio?"

Brad, one of the many team members who recently got an FM adapter to plug into his phone, squeezes right up to the top of the stairs under the horizontal blast doors and looks for NVCR. He gets a hazy signal: Cecil reporting explosions in the housing developments of Marshall's Gorge and Golden Dunes, and the deaths of two firefighters containing a blaze that started up in Cactus Bloom, whose names will not be released until their families are notified or until the beams demand it, whichever comes first.

Carlos wants to restrict the team from being glued to the radio for updates, but there's no use putting down a rule like "we're only checking once every half hour, on the half hour" when the various timepieces in the room will probably show that to be the time every five minutes. He can, however, keep himself from overdosing on Cecil-and-static and getting keyed up with anxiety over something he can't fix.

Digging a set of earbuds out of his messenger bag, he plugs them into his tablet, sits back against the wall again, and puts on an episode of the cheesy old 1970's Lyra-and-Pan cartoon.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"For most of us, the worst has passed. For those of us who are still experiencing the worst, please, be brave. Emergency crews are doing their very best to get to you. For those of us who have ourselves passed, our hearts go out to your friends and families. Stay strong. Help your neighbors. I will return to you tomorrow. Good night, Night Vale. Good night."

On that note, the experimental theologians begin to venture upstairs.

The power is still out, and from the first floor they can hear an eerie whistling, dripping sound. When Carlos dares to look outside, he gets an explanation for both: there are several toppled telephone poles on their street, including one that plunged straight into the roof of the larger rental house. The whistling is an outdoor breeze coming inside. The dripping is from the viscous red fluid running down the wood.

"Is that blood?" asks Fleur softly.

"Not human blood," says Mateo. "The color and viscosity are all wrong. Doesn't look like any variety of blood I'm familiar with, either."

And Li Hua says, "Where do we keep the sample jars?"

She and Adriana circle back inside to get some gloves and containers, while the rest of the group (minus Brad, who's still trying not to walk too much) trails out to explore further.

The smaller rental, like most of the houses on their street, is in good shape; the windows on one side are blown in, nothing they can't sweep up and replace. But a few houses down...there's a disaster zone. A home that must have had some kind of explosion on the ground floor, because the top floor is almost totally caved in on it, a mess of glass and dust and splintered furniture and torn insulation and shattered dishes. Water fountains up from a burst pipe in the near corner. Debris is strewn all around the yard.

Carlos and Isaña immediately move toward it. They're not the only ones; people are starting to trickle out of all the houses nearby, and quite a few are converging on the wreck. When he gets close enough, he realizes that a lot of the wreckage in the yard isn't plaster, the way he first assumed; instead, the grass is strewn with hundreds of chalky, message-imprinted candy hearts.

"Young couple," says a woman standing on the sidewalk, shaking her head as Carlos comes up beside her. "There are always a few. Somebody thinks, oh, of course I'm not stupid enough to get a card, but maybe I'll just get her a single rose. Or a couple of chocolates. That can't hurt, right? Not when I love her so much...."

"Can we find out if they're still alive?" asks Carlos.

"If they made it into their shelter, they'll be alive. Probably." The woman clucks her tongue in disapproval, her echidna daemon shaking his head. "And she was pregnant, too, poor dear."

"We can try to find the shelter door," volunteers Fleur in shaky Spanish. Her grackle daemon, perched on her shoulder, nods in agreement. "We have a long range. Eight feet. And my daemon is small and light, so he will not set anything off, I think."

"We'll need better light if we want to stage a rescue," declares a man with a moose daemon. The sun is almost set, and none of the streetlights are coming on. "Safest to wait for the emergency crews."

"How long will that take?" asks Carlos. "Before he signed off, Cecil made it sound like a lot of areas were in worse shape than this."

"Be a few days at least," says a grandmotherly woman with a horned stag beetle riding in the brim of her hat. "Heard it was real bad up in Cactus Bloom. Real bad. Mark my words, I'll bet they had some newlyweds just move in."

"If we need light, we could bring some cars over and turn on the headlights," says Mateo. "We have battery-powered lanterns, too."

"A couple of tough ol' daemons like ours, bet we could make some real progress," adds Gerald, patting his ox daemon's shoulder and addressing the man with the moose.

After eighteen hours of being cooped up in a small dark room, the whole team is itching for some physical exertion. From the rumblings going around among their neighbors, it sounds like the rest of the street is feeling it too. "Henriette, Köhler, go bring a couple of the cars around," directs Carlos. "Does anyone here have experience with architecture? And does anyone have a bird daemon with a longer range than eight feet...?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

In the stark glare of half a dozen sets of headlights, they work their way into the wrecked house. Flying daemons swoop over the remains of walls to open locked doors and take the measure of imploded rooms.

Someone brings a stack of gardening gloves from their shed, and someone else rounds up bicycle helmets from all the nearby houses, giving Carlos and a few others enough protection to clear away debris around the back door. A twelve-year-old boy shows up with an axe, and none of the Night Vale natives question his ability to use it, so Carlos swallows his objections and lets the kid hack a hole in a non-load-bearing wall (well, none of the walls are particularly load-bearing at this point) large enough for the oversize daemons to get through.

Gerald's ox daemon, with the help of the moose and a reindeer, have to work together to hold up a collapsed ceiling while their humans drag several wooden beams and a fallen toaster off the top of the shelter door.

When Gerald knocks on the sturdy metal...it lifts. Carlos isn't far enough in to see the door itself, but he hears the creak, and a new man's voice saying, "¿Policía?"

"Just your friendly neighbors," says Gerald, in his passable Spanish. "Now, you should come out quickly. Your house is no good to stay in."

Carlos trains a flashlight on the threshold of the axe-created hole in the wall. "This way!" he calls. "It's not far."

Moments later, a dark-haired young couple come crawling through the hole. Her daemon is a colorful bird; his, a mammal that looks like a small kangaroo. They stop short when they get far enough to see their back kitchen. Unlike the room at the center of the house, it's intact enough to see clearly what it used to be, under the dust and the broken appliances and the puddle forming under the sink.

The man clasps his wife's hand, shaking. The bird-daemon lets out a quiet, keening cry of despair.

Mateo and the woman with the echidna daemon, in a borrowed bicycle helmet and hard hat respectively, push past Carlos and help the couple to their feet. "Don't look," the woman urges them. "Just keep moving."

"I am so sorry for your loss," adds Mateo. "But you can trust that everything is part of the Lord's plan."

Carlos bites his tongue, partly because Mateo wouldn't care what some random unimportant guy has to say about his beliefs, but mostly because the poor couple seem too shell-shocked to be listening anyway. Skip to the practical matters. Once the two are safely out from under their roof, he takes over, walking them through a cleared path in the yard to the relative safety of the street. "You're going to be okay. We have some people with places you can stay. Was there anyone else living in your home?"

"Just the faceless old woman," says the man weakly.

"All right. She can take care of herself. Are you hungry? Thirsty?"

"Drink to forget," sniffles the woman.

"Not now, sweetheart," says the man. "The baby, remember?"

"We have tea. Very soothing," Carlos tells them. Another neighbor brought it over, and has made mugs ready for all the ad-hoc rescue workers. "And corn muffins. And —"

Something inside the ruined house goes crack, and Carlos catches the sound of a disturbingly fleshy thump.

Thankfully, other people are already running to take care of it, so Carlos doesn't feel the need to hand the rescuees off to someone else. "Corn muffins and invisible pie," he finishes. "Come over here and sit on the tailgate for now. You don't have to eat right this second, you can have some any time you decide you're hungry. I'm Carlos Ramirez, by the way."

"We know," says the woman, too blanked-out with shock to muster up much feeling.

"Do you? That's, um, that's good. Now, I'm sorry, but I don't think I've ever caught your names...."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Tuck and Herschel Wallaby end up staying in the house across the street from Carlos's for the next few days. Everyone on the street, including the experimental theologians, makes a point to bring over a casserole or something.

A few neighbors also bring meals for the experimental theologians themselves, since Gerald is laid up with severe abdominal bruising from getting punched in the back by an unstable two-by-four on the way out of the Wallabys' house.

The tarps Carlos bought in Kinlání all get used in service of covering up the new holes in the rentals. As Carlos is holding one of them in place to be nailed over top of a shattered window, Henriette catches his eye and says, "I guess we're not getting our deposit back."

It's a full day before emergency workers have finished attending to the hardest-hit areas of town enough to come over and restore the power lines, including pulling the telephone pole out of the larger rental. Repair companies are booked solid for the next few weeks; they're going to be stuck with the tarps for a while.

Night Vale General is booked solid too. They won't have room to look at Gerald unless/until his organs start actively failing.

When Cecil reports the all-clear for people to travel except in cordoned-off areas, the team confirms that the chapel is undamaged, and most of their Rusakov meters scattered around town are in good shape. Three are damaged beyond repair; another two look seriously cracked and scuffed. Carlos makes a note to get them all replaced if he can.

A few days more, and an overall cleanup crew arrives on their street. By this time an apartment complex in Old Town Night Vale is offering cheap units for the housing of Valentine's Day victims, so the experimental theologians help the Wallabys pack up and transport as many of their things as they can salvage.

When the truck is almost loaded, Tuck and Herschel take a moment to visit Gerald. "If the child is a boy, we're naming him Gerald," says Herschel, even speaking slowly and clearly to make sure Gerald catches it all.

"Megan for a girl," adds Tuck. "And if it's ambiguous or genderless, Kendall."

Li Hua's enthusiasm to study the red mystery liquid fades quickly after she works out its chemical breakdown. "Butter, sugar, invertase, cherry," she reports. "It's a chocolate cordial filling."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Cheap sports watches, cheap dressy watches, a stainless steel one with gold accents that shows the day and date, a solar-powered digital one that doubles as a compass, some novelty Mickey and Minnie Mouse ones designed for kids, a pocket watch, a watch with the logo of the Kulání baseball team, and a watch on a glittery silver bangle. Every single one is empty. Even the Hello Kitty watch Carlos tested before entering town has morphed, here in the Night Vale sphere of influence, into a hollow space with a gelatinous grey lump inside.

"If someone saw us like this with no context, they'd think we were obsessive-compulsive," remarks Isaña, sitting on a corner of the desk strewn with watch shells.

"We can quit any time we want," says Carlos stubbornly. "For instance, right now, we're going to put all this aside and try calling Raimondi again."

The head of the Desert Bluffs team has missed four calls, and hasn't yet called Carlos back. They're starting to get worried.

So it's a huge relief when, at last, this call gets picked up. "Carlo Raimondi speaking."

"Raimondi! It's Ramirez," exclaims Carlos. "We've been trying to get in touch. You're still in contact with Strexcorp, right?"

"Of course!" says Raimondi. "Strexcorp. It is everything."

As corporate slogans go, it's hard to get more self-aggrandizing than that. "We had a...natural disaster out here, a few days ago, and some of the prototype meters they sent us were damaged or destroyed. In that situation, will Strex replace them? Will we have to pay for new ones?"

"Strex will replace them. Just let me know how many you need!"

"Three at least. Preferably five."

"Five is reasonable."

"Really?" This is so much easier than dealing with the grant committee. "That's fantastic! Tell them we really appreciate it. Will they need the originals to study? Do I have to ship them, or would someone come over and pick them up?"

"Not necessary! Catastrophic damage falls outside the scope of this test."

That's understandable. It isn't like Strex will have a lot of markets for this thing where Valentine's Day is a serious risk. "All right. We have run into an issue within the scope of the test, if that's something you can pass on." When Raimondi agrees, he lays it out: "The devices aren't accurate into the highest ranges we get."

"All right. How high is that?"

Carlos gives him the median, first and third quartiles, and outlying high of the ratings they've gotten at the station. There's a faint scratching sound on the other end, making him jealous: Raimondi still gets to use pens.

"And where are you finding these ratings?"

"That one place I showed you on the map. Remember?"

"Oh!" says Raimondi. "Of course. All right, Strex will look into a more sensitive redesign. Someone will be in touch."

"Hey, Raimondi, are you feeling okay?" says Carlos abruptly.

"Yes. Why?"

Somehow Carlos doesn't think it would be tactful to say because you haven't said one casually dickish thing this whole conversation. Besides, that's not the only reason this conversation feels off. His counterpart in Desert Bluffs sounds cheerful enough, but it's a bland, impersonal cheer. "You just sound a little out of it."

"Well, I'm fine, don't worry!" says Raimondi. "I have to get back to work now, okay? I'm on a schedule."

They trade goodbyes, and Carlos is left staring at dismembered watches again, trying to figure out why he still feels uneasy after that conversation went so well.

Chapter Text

Between the ongoing disaster cleanup, the new team members getting into projects in earnest, and the old team members' need to take regular readings at the sites where the Rusakov meters were destroyed (not to mention, ever since Gerald got a proper medical checkup after being slammed in the kidneys, the need to get him to and from dialysis three days a week), Carlos doesn't talk to Cecil much for a while. Nothing odd about that, right? Sometimes people just don't call. That's okay.

Well, he does call NVCR once to report seeing a man in a tan jacket. Apparently Cecil has a standing request for people to do that. He doesn't have any useful information, because he can't remember the man's face, or indeed anything about him except the deerskin suitcase and insect-daemon lanyard, but he would have felt bad if he didn't call at all.

And he calls to have Cecil warn the town about the whirring blue thing that came through an impromptu portal, that looks nothing like any animal seen in this world, and that keeps eating chunks out of trees, fence posts, and picnic furniture. That has to be followed by a second call to correct the errors in Cecil's warning, and a third call to report that the creature has died, possibly of wood poisoning, so the population no longer needs to live in fear.

And once, after opening an email with an innocent subject line to find a particularly scathing review of his understanding of theology, he and Isaña surrender to the urge to hide in bed for a while and pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist...then pull themselves out of it by calling NVCR to get the alethiometer's answer to the question, "What should we do?"

"In what sense?" asks Cecil politely. "On a specific issue, in general, short-term, long-term...?"

"What is the most important thing for me and my daemon to do, in terms of furthering our experimental research, in the next month?"

There's a friendly pause while Cecil turns the dials and watches the results. At last he says, "Finish the electrum spyglass."

"How? We've gotten valuable results already...not to mention, we only got to them because we've already tried as many random things as we could think of. Can it at least give me some clue about what to do next?"

"I can certainly try." Dials turn, the needle spins. "Hm. It says you need to use better electrum."

So there's all that. But that's just business. It's not like he's calling for personal reasons.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

One Friday afternoon, Carlos is out installing the last of the new-and-improved replacement Rusakov meters, listening to the radio from the van as Cecil announces the wedding of Cactus Jane to a man whose name he doesn't catch.

He turns to Adriana to ask

 

,,,°(´㉨`)°,,,

 

Carlos shrugs on the backpack and turns to look over his heavily-padded shoulder, though it isn't like he can see much around the thick fur of his hood. "All tucked in?"

"Bundled up and ready to go," reports Isaña from inside the pack.

The sky is clear by now, but there's a respectable layer of snow on the ground when they step out of the Norwegian Polar Station into the Svalbard afternoon, and Isaña is a daemon of that awkward size where she's too big to fit in a pocket but too small to forge through it on her own. The sun is long set, not that it ever got more than a few degrees off the ground in the first place. Carlos never appreciated normal sunsets so much until he landed in Ny-Ålesund in the middle of the months-long winter night.

On the short walk to the barracks, Carlos stops when he sees a flash of green in the sky.

"Is something going on?" asks Isaña, voice getting clearer as she sticks her head out of the pack. "Ooh!"

"I know," says Carlos, grinning under his muffler. She can't see all the distant detail that he can, but the auroras are dazzling as they form, even seen only as vibrant blurs against the black night. He turns in place, watching them dance high above the arctic research chapels of wildly different nations, and on into the distance over the mountains.

Once in a while he still wonders what would have happened if the Night Vale project had come together, but he doesn't regret losing it. Not any more. Not when he's getting to do Rusakov research right in the backyard of the panserbjørne, testing the thinness of the borders between worlds at the same latitude Lord Asriel himself did, and getting regular views like this one absolutely free. Besides, it's like Dr. Belacqua said: Where we are is always the most important place.

He starts moving again — can't stay out in these temperatures too long, you'll get frostbite, no matter how well-insulated — but doesn't take his eyes off tonight's Northern Lights.

At first he doesn't notice anything unusual in the shifting patterns. Then some of the dark spots start to look oddly constant, and, as Carlos watches, resolve into silhouettes: a dark flock of figures, soaring over Svalbard with the auroras throwing out pink-and-white streaks at their backs.

They don't move like birds. "Witches," says Carlos out loud. But there aren't any witch-clans living in this area, so far as he knows. Are they passing through, or coming to visit? Some dealings with the armored bears, maybe? They sure seem to be getting larger.

He's stomping through the snow up to the front of the barracks when it strikes him that the witches are getting very large.

They're landing.

Carlos catches his breath as several dozen women riding cloud-pine branches touch down, forming a half-circle in the snow around him. They can't all be young but they look like it, with unbound or loosely swept-back hair, wearing black silk outfits that leave their arms bare. (Witches never have to worry about frostbite.) A menagerie of bird-daemons, though there definitely isn't one for every human, flap to the ground or perch on shoulders along with them.

His gaze is briefly drawn to a woman whose hair is silvery-white, but her face looks as young as the rest of them: smooth skin darker than most of her companions, eyes strangely pale and unfocused. Is she blind...?

Another witch steps forward, with a bearing that suggests she's their leader, though the closest thing she has to a badge of authority is a chain of red flowers sitting around her brow. A great gray goose daemon stands at her side. She fixes him with eyes as brilliantly green as the auroras themselves, and says, "Dr. Carlo Raimondi?"

For a few seconds, Carlos is crushed.

He forces himself to get over it. Just because witches live for hundreds of years doesn't mean it's wise to keep them waiting. "No, sorry, he's a colleague of mine...I'm Carlos Ramirez. We get this a lot. As far as I know, Raimondi's in Trimountaine."

The witch-queen looks taken aback. Carlos can only assume this doesn't happen to her often.

"I, um, I could email him for you?" He jerks his thumb in the direction of the barracks. "Make sure he knows to expect you...save you from wasting a flight?"

"A moment, please." She holds a low conversation with her goose daemon in a language Carlos doesn't recognize, never taking her eyes off of Carlos, though her daemon looks briefly to the woman with the white hair and pale eyes. Back in English, she says, "Of the two of you, which has the armored daemon?"

"That would be me, I guess. Armadillo? Raimondi's is a hyena."

"I see." The witch-queen inclines her head. "Our apologies for the confusion about your name, Dr. Carlos Ramirez. You are, indeed, the one that

 

,,,°(´㉨`)°,,,

 

"What do you mean, Herschel Wallaby had her baby?" exclaims Carlos. "She couldn't have been more than a few months along!"

"Didn't you catch the birth announcements?" asks Henriette, passing the Congratulations On Your Little Girl! card around the room. "It was her, the Black Dauphin, and Cactus June — who either doesn't know who the father is or won't say, poor thing. But as for the Wallabys...let's just say Megan is a very small baby."

Carlos decides to just roll with it, and, when the card gets to him, signs it with one of their sets of letter-stamps plus a thumbprint using the ink.

As he and Fleur are heading out to visit Jorge's Tacos, and hopefully to discover that some of the electrum encasing it is "better" electrum, he can't shake a feeling that something even stranger than the usual has happened today. "Fleur, this may be a stupid question, but have you noticed anything...extra-weird, this afternoon?"

"Such as...?"

Good question. "I don't know. Just a feeling."

The visit turns out to be a bust: they have to stop the car forty feet away from the former site of Jorge's Tacos, which has been replaced with a nine-meter-high black monolith with no visible entrance and mysterious hooded spectres milling around it. Not only are the plants in the area starting to wilt, there's no electrum left at all.

"We should study this," says Carlos, trying to map out a boundary of safety based on the state of the plant life.

"We should," agrees Fleur, though she doesn't sound happy about it.

"Maybe later," adds Carlos.

"Yes. Yes, please. Later would be great."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Henriette puts together a brief presentation on the changes in town-wide Rusakov readings over the past few months, with their two new points of interest: Point F, the door in the desert, and Point G, the site that used to be Jorge's Tacos. Carlos checks it over for completeness, but he doesn't have to edit a thing.

They're setting it up in the ordinater room, with Mateo, Fleur, Adriana, and Köhler in attendance, when Carlos happens to look outside and notice the sky is a familiar ugly puce. "There wasn't a sandstorm scheduled for today, was there?"

"I don't remember hearing about one," says Adriana. Fleur and Mateo shake their heads in corroboration.

"Maybe they bumped one up from a later date," says Henriette. "Just in case, let's give the chapel a once-over and make sure all the windows are sealed."

She gives them room assignments, Carlos gives her a thumbs-up, and they scatter. Brad is in the darkroom, so nobody goes in, but they tip off Li Hua, who's in the sample room dissecting blue-whirring-thing cells. Gerald and his daemon are the only pair off-site, at Night Vale General having a machine do what Gerald's kidneys are no longer up for.

Henriette is just getting to an animated map of the past week in Night Vale Rusakov concentration when the first rush of sand kicks up against the windows. The group hesitates, turning a wary eye to the storm.

"We are well-supplied in this building, I hope?" says Köhler.

"We have disaster supplies everywhere by this point," says Adriana.

"Thank you, young lady, but I was addressing Dr. Ramirez."

"There's really no need," says Carlos, as diplomatically as possible. "Adriana's right. And it's not nearly bad enough to start taking cover, so let's try to focus as long as we can."

"Solid plan," says Henriette, and returns to the projected map. "As you can see, we've switched to a larger map to extend out into the desert as far as Point F, but we don't have any kind of systematic data for the areas around it, so —"

"What are you doing?" demands Henriette. "Stop giving my presentation!"

Everyone stares.

There are two Henriettes standing at the front of the room. Identical faces, identical hairstyles, identical outfits. Next to their legs, two identical alpine marmot daemons take defensive stances, facing each other down.

"I'm doing no such thing," says the Henriette on the right. She pokes the arm of the Henriette on the left. "You seem solid enough."

The Henriette on the left answers the gesture with a light shove. "Of course I'm solid. I'm real. What are you?"

While the rest of the group is gaping at the Henriettes, the door to the hall opens. "Sorry to interrupt — oh," says Li Hua's voice. "Okay, listen, you all trust Josie, right?"

"That's right," say both Henriettes.

"Great. Which of these two just appeared out of nowhere?"

"The one on the left," says Fleur. "Why?"

Bang and the leftmost Henriette thumps against the wall, a red stain blooming across her chest. Daemons around the room screech and yelp as their humans start in disbelief. The extra Henriette gags wetly for a moment, eyes wide and body jerking, then slides toward the ground as the second marmot daemon vanishes into thin air.

Adriana, Henriette's advisee, is the first person to recover her voice. "What the hell was that?"

"Message from your witch friend, as reported by your radio friend." Li Hua's handgun is pointed at the floor now, her fingers safely away from the trigger. She quotes in Spanish — "They come in twos. You come in twos. You and you. Kill your double" — then switches back to English: "Oh, great. Was anybody watching Carlos?"

"What?" blurts Carlos — in ragged chorus with a second Carlos, sitting in the chair next to him.

For a moment the two Carloses just stare at each other in mounting horror. Then the doubled Carlos pushes his chair backward, a second Isaña skittering backward alongside him. "Stay away from me!"

"Who are you and where did you come from?" demands Carlos.

"I'm me! Don't you try to trick them!"

"I'm not tricking anyone! You're the imposter here!"

They eyeball each other, hearts racing.

We can still work this out, thinks Carlos. A third-hand warning is hardly a great reason to jump straight to murder. They've gotten off to a bad start, but if they can work past that, how much could they accomplish with the whole team doubled? And even if these mystery duplicates don't have all the skills and knowledge of the originals, that doesn't mean they deserve to be —

The other Carlos's face contorts into something cold and hateful and merciless, a split-second before he lunges.

Carlos's head hits the floor with a dizzying crack, leaving him half-conscious as his double's hands close around his throat. Oh, he thinks, with a strange detachment. They're evil. Never mind.

The sound of the others, arguing fast and loud over which version of him to take out, barely reaches him over a haze of white noise. Thumbs press into his windpipe; black spots dance over his vision...

...and then he's gasping for air, the echoes of a gunshot ringing in his ears, someone dragging his own mirror image off of him. "Breathe, Carlos," urges Henriette. "It's okay, we got him. Just breathe."

"H-how did you know?" squeaks Isaña, as Carlos gulps air.

"Only one Dr. Ramirez was hesitating as he considered whether to offer a compromise in the name of experimental theology," says Köhler. "That was the real one."

"I, on the other hand, have no such hesitation," says a second Köhler to the right of the first one, and smashes a fist into the leftmost Köhler's jaw.

It's a well-executed boxing move, a punch the real Köhler would probably have no trouble throwing at an opponent, but Carlos didn't miss the ugly fury in this one's eyes. "Lying," he rasps, pointing at the Köhler on the right. "Get him!"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

After that point they keep it together enough to watch, and have no doubt which is the double in the cases of Mateo, Fleur, and Adriana. Li Hua takes the extras out with disturbing efficiency, then dumps the empty cartridges on the end of the nearest table. "Nobody touch those for a while. They're hot."

"Did you get your own double earlier?" asks Carlos. They didn't hear a gunshot, but maybe she went for something quieter? All he gets out of the geneticist is a noncommittal grunt.

"Are you...ex-military, by any chance?" asks Adriana shakily, looking — just like the rest of them — anywhere but at her own dead body. Fleur has already run to the bathroom to throw up. Mateo is holding his cross necklace and whispering rapid prayers under his breath.

"Didn't pass the physical exam," says Li Hua with a shrug. "Anyone else in the building? Other than the guy downstairs?"

Right on cue, there's a muffled thump from the ground floor.

Mateo stays with Köhler — the man spat out a tooth earlier, he should really have medical attention, but nobody's going to get here as long as the Sandstorm rages — while Li Hua, Carlos, Adriana, and Henriette hurry down the stairs. They reach the main room of the chapel just in time to find Brad, on his crutches, stumbling out of the darkroom. Noises of scuffling and thuds follow him out.

Li Hua runs to the door and closes it behind him. "Nobody go in there for a minute."

"Radio," says Carlos shortly, and Henriette hastens to turn it on.

"Can you feel all that blood? Is it even your blood? How can you be sure?" asks Cecil's voice over the airwaves.

Carlos immediately identifies it as a pre-recorded ad spot (sure enough, a Home Depot tagline comes along a minute later), and busies himself with hugging Isaña and wondering what in the world is going on in the darkroom, and how they're going to dispose of all these horribly familiar dead bodies, and whether Li Hua's unsettling calm in the face of it all is because this is her double they're talking to or whether she's been like this all along.

The live Cecil comes back on air, reporting that one of his interns just finished a fight to the death with her own double, and he isn't sure which of them is the one that survived.

And the darkroom is flung open once more, allowing Li Hua to step out: hair and clothes rumpled, her wren daemon's feathers sticking up every which way, bloody-handed, panting, grinning.

"Did you get him?" asks the Li Hua who came down with the group.

"Oh, I got him all right," says the Li Hua from the darkroom. To Brad, she adds, "You better stay out here for a while, buddy."

"Good lord," says Henriette, which about sums it up.

Adriana, with admirable practicality, picks up the nearest blunt object (a Bunsen burner) and holds it between herself and the two Li Huas. "Which one of you is the homicidal maniac? I can't tell!"

Carlos, meanwhile, is thinking fast and not liking a second of it. Hypothesis: the Sandstorm doubles, whether pulled from a parallel universe or generated on the fly from some more obscure process, duplicate all the traits of the people they resemble...with the bonus that they're murderous psychopaths. (As distinct from someone like Mateo, a murderous true-believer.) Corollary: Li Hua's double is being exactly as composed as Li Hua because she duplicated the trait of being able to control murderous psychopathy.

Either the extra Li Hua is going to be exactly the kind of valuable addition to the team that the original was, or some night soon both Li Huas are going to strangle the rest of them in their beds.

"Oh, quit looking at us like that," says the Li Hua from the darkroom. "We just saved all your lives. Especially Brad's! His double showed up without a leg injury. He would've been easy pickings."

Henriette catches her breath. "The hospital —"

Oh, no. Night Vale General is going to be swarming with patients' non-injured psychopathic doubles —

— and just when Carlos thinks he couldn't have more to worry about, he catches what Cecil has been saying:

"And with that, dear listeners, let's go to the...oh my. Look at that. Listeners, there is a vortex that has formed along my studio wall...how would you describe it?"

"Black," volunteers Khoshekh's voice. "Almost indigo...and so beautiful."

"I can't leave you," adds Cecil, addressing his audience across Night Vale, though he sounds like he's trying to convince himself. "Our show is not over yet...."

"But there must be something beyond this something," says Khoshekh, breathless with wonder.

Carlos practically throws himself at the radio. "Cecil, don't!"

Of course Cecil can't hear him, and of course Cecil doesn't listen, just assures the town that he will try not to be long...and then he's gone. Wandered off into a portal, not a second thought about what universe he'll end up in, no guarantee that he'll ever make it back. Did he at least take the alethiometer? Carlos has the strangest urge to...well, not to start believing in any God, but perhaps to pray in a bloodstone circle for Cecil's safe return.

"All right, battle plan," says Henriette, loudly enough to get his attention. "Brad, get in the van. You're riding along with Li Hua and Li Hua, giving them directions to Night Vale General. Wonder Twins, get ready to kill some more doubles. Carlos and Adriana, take the hybrid, get to the station. Figure out everything you can about that portal. I'll be here, keeping an eye on the rest of the team and making sure these bodies get disposed of without anyone doing any illicit experimental theology to them in the meantime. Carlos?"

"Yes, good," says Carlos, and all but sprints for the door.

He trusts Henriette above anyone else to safeguard the privacy of their bodies, even in proxy form. Whatever is going on with Li Hua, there should be more than enough action at the hospital to keep her (them?) occupied until the team can figure it out. And he's self-aware enough to admit he would be useless right now at anything that didn't involve going after Cecil.

For all its howling fury, the Sandstorm turns out to be barely tangible when you're actually walking through it. Visibility is awful, but as long as nobody crashes into them, that part isn't much of a problem: Carlos could make this drive in his sleep.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos and Adriana sweep into the NVCR lobby just as the Weather is ending.

Cecil's welcome voice is back on the hall speakers as they do the finger-stick to sign in. "...but I have returned from whatever horrible place I have gone. Along the way, in the vortex, I saw a grotesque man. A foul devil of a man! And he attacked me!"

Khoshekh hisses, an expression of profound human distress. "And that creature by his side," he snarls. "No daemon. No natural, living thing at all. A horrible, twisted apparition. I hate it. I hate it! That poor, pitiful beast of a man, forced to exist alongside it."

Cecil soothes him as the experimental theologians get in the elevator, starting a feedback loop that calms both human and daemon down. He's soliloquizing in earnest when they reach the third floor, and sounds like his normal self again when he bids all the listeners good night.

The experimental theologians are outside the booth as the RECORDING sign dims.

At first Cecil doesn't notice them. He's too busy holding Khoshekh, cradling the margay daemon (whose tail is puffed up to three times its normal size) in a way Carlos has only seen once before, after the surprise attack from Köhler's binturong. Considering how rarely they feel the need to be together at all, whatever they saw must have shaken him badly. There's no sign of any portal, which is a shame for the team, but probably a good thing for Cecil.

Carlos knocks.

A wan smile flashes across Cecil's face; he comes to the door of the booth, but doesn't cross the threshold and holds up a hand to stop Carlos from coming in. "You had better stay out there for the moment — Intern Dana will be right over to get the blood cleaned up."

It sends a frisson of worry and protective anger down Carlos's spine. "You're hurt?"

"No, it — it isn't mine." Cecil shudders again. "It was all over the walls — it was on the floor —"

Instinctively, Carlos looks down. The bottom inch or so of Cecil's bell-bottoms is glutted with red. His moccasins have left a trail of bloody footprints across the tiles from his chair through the door, and from a point near the wall to his chair...and there's a second set of footprints between the console and the same spot on the wall, the sharp outlines of expensive men's business shoes.

"Excuse me! Please step back," calls a dreamy voice from down the hall.

It's a teenager wearing rubber gloves, a kerchief tying back her impressively long ringlet curls; her ID badge confirms her to be Dana. The daemon trotting along next to her mop and bucket is a sand-colored feline, the size of a small house cat but with distinct differences: flatter head, overlarge ears, and a couple of prominent dark bands on the front legs.

"This is a job for an intern," Dana informs them. "At least, since it is here, it is a job for an intern. Maybe it would be a job for another person, if it had happened in another place? Either way, step back, please, while we take care of it."

"Can you give us just a minute before cleaning?" asks Adriana. "We'd like to get samples."

Dana turns to her boss. "Is that what you want, Cecil?"

Cecil swallows. "I-it's okay. Let them. Anything for experimental theology."

Adriana opens the kit she brought with her from the car and snaps on a fresh pair of sterile gloves. Which leaves Carlos to stumble through trying to explain to Cecil that they'll be needing as much of the sample as possible, so if he wouldn't mind....

At last Dana translates: "What I think Carlos is trying to say, and I may be getting this wrong, but it seems to me that he would like you to take off your pants."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It turns out NVCR is so old-fashioned that it literally has a tape room. With physical, analog tapes.

Cecil fast-forwards, hits, play and fast-forwards again, trying to find the recording of the stretch of time he was out of the studio (out of this universe?), while Carlos hangs back and dithers over whether to offer the man his chapel coat. Sure, Cecil is barefoot and pantsless, but those black pantaloon-things he's wearing are loose and modest and leave plenty to the imagination...besides, would the offer make things unbearably weird?

And should he take it as a good or bad sign for his mental health that he's apparently coping with today's events, in all their glorious shades of trauma, by fixating on clothing etiquette?

While Adriana takes samples back in the booth with Intern Dana keeping an eye on her, Cecil reaches the beginning of the interruption, tensing all over again when he hears the name Desert Bluffs. "That's him! That's his voice! That wretched, horrible creature...."

The stranger, who identifies himself as Kevin, sounds nothing like Cecil, but claims to look like the photo of Cecil next to the equipment. His voice is pleasant and friendly, even when remarking on this odd and bloodless desk.

Cecil mutters darkly the whole way through, worrying one of the tasseled clasps on his silk changshan.

"Did he really...look like you?" asks Carlos as the recording transitions into the weather. The circumstances seem too different for this to be Cecil's Sandstorm double, though it's an impressive coincidence, two different kinds of döppelgangers showing up in one day.

"Only in the very loosest sense of the term."

"The eyes were all wrong," puts in Khoshekh, fur standing on end. "Not just wrong for Cecil, wrong for eyes."

"He was missing fingers," adds Cecil, gingerly touching his throat. Carlos isn't the only one a lookalike attempted to strangle today. The main difference is that Cecil didn't hesitate to strangle back. "And his mouth — a hideous parody of a smile. Of course it would turn out they came from Desert Bluffs."

"It wasn't our world's Desert Bluffs," says Carlos. Will Parry's world supposedly had a London and an Oxford, didn't it? Some universes have similar, even identical, geography. "They're just your local sports rivals, not a bunch of bloodthirsty monsters."

"Oh? And how do you know? Have you been there?"

"Not in person, but we have a control team over there, and we exchange regular reports. I think they would have mentioned if the place was covered in —"

He stops cold. What if they wouldn't have mentioned it? Carlos hasn't seen any of that team for months, and the last time he saw Raimondi, the man was spattered with gore he didn't seem to notice. What if that wasn't just another Night Vale horror? What if —?

"You have people in Desert Bluffs?" asks Cecil, aghast.

Carlos is already finding Raimondi's number in his contacts. Pick up. Please, pick up....

The phone rings, and rings...

...and picks up. "Hello?"

"Raimondi!" exclaims Carlos. "It's me. How are you feeling?"

"Good!" says Raimondi, in that oddly bland voice. "Today has been declared a citywide holiday."

"Really? Sounds exciting. Because of the storm?" Carlos is babbling, but he doesn't know how to stop. He can hear now that his counterpart sounds like Kevin, only worse, because Kevin at least had a polite curiosity that reflected some level of human interest and thought. Raimondi sounds as incurious as a robot reading a press release. "The funniest thing happened to us after it started. Exact duplicates of everyone on the team appeared in the chapel."

"Yes, that happened here too."

"It did? Is everyone okay?"

"Of course! It's been a very productive day, with all the extra hands, even though we're stuck inside. I was just putting together a new desk chair with my own double when you called."

"Were you? Wow, yours must be a lot nicer than ours. Well, ah...." He's wracking his brain for ways to draw a little genuine emotion out of Raimondi, and only coming up with one. "Listen, we were worried that you might be in danger because of the storm, but since you're okay...do you remember what I was telling you about the guy on Night Vale Community Radio?"

"Sure I do."

"Great. Because the thing is, I had just finished taking his pants off before I called you, so I should probably get back to that."

"Okay!" says Raimondi. "Don't let it cut into your work hours. Goodbye!"

The call disconnects.

That settles it. Something is very wrong in their own world's Desert Bluffs. "We need to get them out of there," says Carlos out loud.

"How?" asks Isaña. "We could ask them to visit Night Vale, but what if they won't come? Are we ready to stage a rescue? Do we even know where in Desert Bluffs their chapel is?"

Cecil interrupts. "What? You can't go there."

"We can't leave them there, either!" snaps Carlos. "If it's our only choice —"

"It is not a choice!" yells Cecil — and then he's advancing on Carlos, blazing with a horrified and passionate conviction, grabbing Carlos's lapels and backing him up against the nearest wall. "I will look up what has happened to your colleagues, and if there is a way to save them I swear I will find it, but Desert Bluffs is an awful, awful place and you cannot go there, Carlos! You have to promise me you won't. Promise me!"

There are bruises on his throat, a breathless Carlos realizes from this distance. Probably similar to the ones now on Carlos's neck, but they stand out more against Cecil's lighter skin.

A slight cough draws Carlos's attention. Intern Dana is standing at the entrance to the tape room, sand-cat daemon at her side. "Your colleague would like you to know that she has all the biological material she is going to get. She is trying to find some readings to explain the portal itself, but it does not sound like she is optimistic."

"Thanks," says Carlos, face heating up. He thinks about trying to explain how it's perfectly innocent the way a half-naked Cecil has him shoved against the wall, then decides it's not worth it. "I have a few more questions for Cecil. Tell her to take all the time she needs."

Chapter Text

In his office, Cecil turns the dials on the alethiometer with feverish intensity. Carlos watches from the opposite side of his desk as the needle races through symbols: the Globe, the Marionette, the Apple, the Compass, the Serpent, the Alpha-and-Omega, the Chameleon, the Hourglass, and, returning here over and over, the Sun.

"You had five team members in Desert Bluffs?" says Cecil at last.

Carlos curls both hands around Isaña, herself rolled up almost completely into an armored sphere. "That's right."

Cecil closes his eyes, hiding his face in one hand. "Three are terribly hurt. The other two are dead. I'm sorry."

Blood pounds in Carlos's ears as the words creep sluggishly through his brain. He recognizes them all individually, but he can't seem to string the meanings together into a whole. "Two...dead...?"

"The first was overdosed with some kind of drug. The second died from...what the drug was supposed to cushion their systems against. The other three survived...what these people did to them."

"What are you talking about?" demands Carlos, mouth dry. "What who did to them? The Church? The Desert Bluffs secret police?"

"Some other group. A group that recognizes no Authority but its own."

"What group?"

"The alethiometer is not a Ouija board, Carlos!" cries Cecil. "It tells me what things are, it doesn't spell out their names!"

Of course. Carlos understands that. And the monsters responsible for this, whoever they are, are miles away; Cecil is not an acceptable alternate target just because he's close by and not singlehandedly making things okay again. "Has it told you what they did? The people who are still alive, what kind of shape are they in?"

"I don't know. It tried to tell me, but I don't understand." Cecil hugs Khoshekh against his chest. "I just know it was horrible and awful and they aren't themselves, and I don't want to look any more! Please, Carlos, don't ask me to keep looking at it!"

A muscle in Carlos's neck twitches as he wrestles with simultaneous urges to say of course, never again, put that down and let me hold you and these are my people and I need to protect them, and if making you cry is what it takes, so be it. "Tell me how to save them. You said you'd do that."

"I said if — I don't know that this can be fixed —"

"Even if they're so hurt that they're going to die within the week, they don't deserve to be left in Desert Bluffs! They should be with their families, they should live what lives they can...please, Cecil, how do we get them out of there?"

Swallowing hard, Cecil turns the dials. The Sword, the Horse, the Compass.

The needle spins straight to the Hourglass, and hovers there.

Of all the thousands of subtle interpretations layered under that symbol, what are the odds that — but no, even though Carlos doesn't have the gift for alethiometry, he can see the meaning of this one on Cecil's face. The only way for the control team to leave is by dying.

And I sent Raimondi back to Desert Bluffs. We had him here, in retrospect obviously high out of his mind but still in two pieces, and I sent him away....

"Thank you for checking," he says, in a hollow, automatic voice.

Cecil shivers, eyes wet, gulping back tears as he stares at the face of the alethiometer. "I'm sorry about your friend."

Carlos nods. Raimondi wasn't exactly a friend, but...he was a human being, like everyone else on the control team, and he never deserved this. Nobody should suffer whatever mad hybrid of drugs and re-education wiped out the man's personality and replaced it with that cheerful, artificial blankness.

When his phone rings, it startles them so badly that Isaña springs into the air and smacks Carlos in the chin.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It turns out there's one piece of good news in this madhouse of a day: Gerald is going to get that kidney transplant he needs. They have a specimen that's fresh, healthy, and a perfect genetic match.

(The hospital also runs a service that deals with dead bodies in large numbers. It's going to be pretty overwhelmed over the next few days, so people who are "volunteers for organ donation and/or ritual sacrifice" are getting top priority.)

Long before he hears it directly, Carlos can tell Gerald will be going back to the US for rehab. If nothing else, the man's adult children aren't going to let their pushing-sixty father recover from surgery in a dangerous, isolated town in the middle of a foreign country. At least they should still be able to collaborate; Gerald will only be limited in how much physical work he does, not how he uses the Internet.

He takes a moment to send a mass text to the rest of the team, giving them the update, then sits down with Cecil again. "Would you be able to ask a question about things in Night Vale? I don't want to push you, it's just that I would really like to know if one of my team members is a dangerous sociopath."

Cecil, nearly recovered now, doesn't even have to touch the dials. "Do you mean Li Hua?"

"Do I want to know how you guessed that?"

"Probably. You want to know everything, I think."

He says it so matter-of-factly, not a hint of mockery or teasing, that a flush spreads across Carlos's face. "Well, tell me, then."

"She looks...off, somehow. I'm not sure how to explain it." Cecil wipes his eyes. "Not dangerously so. Not like that wretched, foul Kevin creature. I understand now that you would want to be warned about something like that! More like your ordinary, everyday human with a diminished capacity for empathy."

It isn't as reassuring as Cecil seems to think. Nor does it help when he confirms that Li Hua has "no more violent fantasies than, you know, average" and that she "really does want to do experimental theology, so as long as you let her and her double keep that up, they aren't dangerous, probably."

At least she hasn't killed anyone before today. Carlos's judgment in hiring people hasn't failed that badly twice. "How in the world did her daemon settle as a wren?"

"Some species of wren will destroy the eggs of other birds nesting in their territory," offers Cecil. "Do you suppose she's one of those?"

Carlos drags his hands through his ever-lengthening hair. "I'm not sure I want to ask."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

He spends the night sitting on the news about the control team, trying to figure out who to tell, and how much, and when.

"We could just...keep the whole thing quiet," he says out loud in the shower, testing the way it sounds. "Whatever's left of Raimondi hasn't tried to hire anyone new. The people doing this don't want outside attention. As long as we don't let anyone go in after them, the situation is contained."

Isaña putters around by his feet. "Or we could call the government. Suspicious deaths of two foreign nationals, that's a big deal. We could sic the Army on them. Maybe both the Hispania Nova Army and the US Army."

"Nobody's going to send in the military on a single unsubstantiated tip. Remember what happened when the City Council tried to apply for federal disaster relief after Valentine's Day? They thought it was a joke."

"It would be different if it came from us," protests Isaña. "We understand how to...well, how to sound normal. And we're infamous, right? What good is that if we can't use it to get a little attention when we need it?"

"If we get our infamy mixed up in this, then it'll be all over the news in an hour, and the people behind this will have more than enough time to go into hiding." Carlos rinses off the last of the lather, switches off the water, and reaches for his towel. "Even if we manage to keep it from blowing up, what's the best case scenario? They'll send an official investigation or a couple of undercover reporters, and next thing you know they'll be getting a bright and happy phone call saying gosh, everything is just swell here! Can't talk long, our productivity is falling by the second."

He tucks the towel in place around his waist and fishes around in the cupboard for leave-in conditioner. Normally he doesn't let his hair grow out long enough to need it, but the dry desert air doesn't do him any favors, and it's not like there's anybody in town who would cut it.

The face that gazes back at him from the mirror seems more drawn than it used to. There's definitely more grey at his temples.

"So you want us to do nothing," says Isaña from the tub.

Carlos can't make himself look at her as he answers. "We didn't come here to start a fight with a vague-yet-menacing organization of who-the-hell-knows-what, any more than we came here to challenge the local government. We're only here to do experimental theology."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Oh, good, you're here," says Steve, when Carlos answers the chapel door. "I know this is short notice, but I'm going to need someone to pick up Renée from school today."

"I...sure, I can do that," stammers Carlos, as Isaña touches noses with a distracted Taeminlahn. He remembers Cecil reading one of Steve's anti-government missives on-air yesterday; the secret police must be coming to collect. "How long will it be until you get back?"

"I don't know." There's a day-old cut across Steve's forehead, and something different about the angles of his face in general. "Best-case scenario, a few hours. Worst-case...Cecil will come get her after the show. He'll have to be sober by then."

Carlos does a double-take. "Cecil's not...?"

"Oh, Cecil is hammered. I wouldn't trust him with a goldfish right now. His show tonight is going to be even more high-strung and disorganized than usual, you can bet on it. Listen, if you do end up having to buy Renée dinner or anything, I'll pay you back. And I'm leaving my car in the lot at Big Rico's. Remind me if I ask?"

"Absolutely. No problem." Drinking to forget is a Night Vale traditional custom, Carlos reminds himself. Cecil will probably be fine. "And don't worry about dinner. Are you doing okay?"

"What, this?" Steve touches the cut on his forehead. "Had a scuffle with my double before taking him out. Nothing I won't get over."

Carlos nods. "And, ah, sorry if this is prying, but did you break your nose?"

Steve raises his eyebrows. "Carlos, you broke my nose."

"What?"

"My own fault. Shouldn't have snuck up on you when you were just getting over being kidnapped. Believe me, in the future I will know better than to ever assume you're too shell-shocked to remember how to use a baseball bat."

Carlos opens and closes his mouth several times, lost for words. Of all the pieces he's managed to pull together about his Magisterium kidnapping, nobody's ever even mentioned this. "Steve, I...I'm so...."

"Don't mention it." Steve leans forward and...rests one hand on Carlos's waist, underneath the chapel coat. It's disconcertingly intimate until Carlos feels Steve slip a piece of paper into his waistband. "You've already apologized, and promised to make it up to me via free babysitting, so here's your big chance. She can watch TV, but no unsupervised Internet and, as always, no dessert until she does her homework. Got all that?"

"Got it."

"Thanks, buddy. You're a lifesaver."

He's taking a casual stroll down the sidewalk when an unmarked white van turns onto the street a couple of blocks down. Carlos watches it close the distance for a few moments, then ducks inside before he accidentally sees anything he shouldn't. Renée needs someone to stay out of re-education (also, sober) to pick her up.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Ducking into the bathroom to read the note, Carlos memorizes it, then flushes it and gets back to work.

Experimental theology that day is all preliminary dart-throwing. He has a mountain of data covering the town's Rusakov levels over the last few days, and only wild guesses on how to interpret it.

The wave of increased Rusakov concentration across all of Night Vale: is that from the sudden influx of new sapient beings, or from some action of the Sandstorm itself? (On this point, he's very glad to have both Li Huas around; he can already think of a dozen different tests he wants to run on them.) There's a sharp dip around the NVCR station; does that mean Dust was being sucked into the portal? Is the timing right? (There are days when Carlos would kill for an accurate timepiece in this town.)

The biologists are similarly overwhelmed; they saved sample tissue from all the team's doubles, but are itching to get as many other samples as possible, hopefully with a wide representation of ages and species. All the vehicles are out scouring the town right now: Mateo riding with Henriette in one, one of the Li Huas with Adriana in another, and Köhler with Brad in a third.

Fleur and the other Li Hua took the bus down to Josie's, out by the car lot. Partly to see if she can tell them anything about the nature of the storm, partly because she hasn't been heard from since posting that photo of runestones on Instagram yesterday, and they want to make sure she's all right.

Carlos ducks over to Big Rico's for lunch, and walks with his pizza and non-wheat-based breadsticks back over to the chapel. He doesn't go around the front, so he doesn't realize the truck has returned until he finds Mateo sitting on the bench by the back door, eating a frozen yogurt out of a Pinkberry cup.

"No, don't mind me, you can sit here if you want," says Mateo in Spanish, scooting over and waving Carlos to sit on the free end.

After sharing a cautious look with Isaña, Carlos shrugs and takes the seat.

(He tries to remember to chew his pizza quietly.)

"Sorry," says Mateo presently, "but what was your name again?"

"Carlos."

"Right, Carlos. No offense, I still have trouble even keeping track of the people I work with sometimes." Mateo strokes the back of his golden weasel daemon, sprawled across his leg. "So, are you an outsider too, or did you grow up in Night Vale?"

Should Carlos be flattered or terrified that it's not obvious by looking at him? "Outsider. Moved here about nine months ago, actually."

"Hey, that's around the same time the first of this gang showed up. Not me, I've only been here about two months. What do you do?"

There's the noise of a stifled snicker from above. Apparently the secret police officer lurking on their roof finds this conversation hilarious.

"Oh, you know, this and that," says Carlos. No matter what he says or does, Mateo always reverts back to a sort of vague sense that Carlos exists but has no distinguishing qualities, and that they've never had any meaningful conversations. Still, he doesn't want to strain the re-education by saying anything too memorable. "Look out for the town. Run errands. Sometimes I babysit."

"Huh. Well, I hope you're enjoying it."

A couple of days ago, in spite of everything, Carlos's first reaction would have been yes, I am. Now, though..."Can I ask you something?"

"Fire away."

"Have you ever had to do something for your job that was...less than ethical? Maybe it's for all the right reasons — say, there are people that you want to keep safe — but you still aren't sure it's the right thing to do."

Aside from a slight twitch of his hands, Mateo's cover doesn't slip. "Sure, I've had times like that. I think everyone does."

Isaña chokes back a snort of disbelief; Carlos splays one hand protectively over her shell. "Of course. We're talking about totally average, everyday moral dilemmas here. So, with that said...how do you deal with it?"

"Mostly? I pray."

Well, that helps Carlos not at all.

"I know it's not exactly the cool thing to do in this field," continues Mateo. "But having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ has helped me through a lot of times when I was afraid, or doubting that I was on the right path, or even just confused."

Carlos finishes his pizza and wipes the grease off his fingers. Never should have started this conversation. "Glad that's working out well for you," he says. "Sorry to leave so abruptly, but I have somewhere to be."

"Of course, of course. But, listen, if you ever do get curious, or want to talk more about God...feel free to come around and ask."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Night Vale Elementary is already a zoo when Carlos gets there, even though he tried to leave an hour before the school was supposed to let out. There must be a couple hundred kids, ages five to eleven, swarming around the entrance. Carlos pulls the pickup into what looks like the last spot left in the parking lot, and stands on the curb on the far side of the bus lane, not even sure where to start.

"How does a town this size have this many children in the first place?" mutters Isaña, tucked under Carlos's arm.

"Maybe all towns have this many kids, and we just don't notice because they're not all together? I don't know. We study experimental theology, not statistics."

Two bright yellow buses pull away, thinning out the herd a little...and in the midst of the general chatter and occasional shriek Carlos hears laughter. Mean laughter. Over to the right of the crowd, one of the taller boys is holding something Carlos can't quite make out, shaking it around in the air while a couple of others hoot and snicker.

"Hey!" yells a familiar voice. "Hey, you leave her alone!"

Renée jumps down the steps, backpack bouncing on her shoulders. Her daemon flies alongside her in hummingbird form, then shifting rapidly into a huge grey-furred wolf. The boys jump, their own daemons turning into wildcats and coyotes to snarl at her, but the wolf bares his teeth and growls deep in his throat.

Fights between kids regularly come down to whose daemon can intimidate the other most. When Carlos was that age, he was undoubtedly the biggest nerd in his grade, but nobody ever tried to pick on him twice: not after meeting Isaña in polar-bear-cub form.

Sure enough, the tall boy who was apparently the ringleader caves. "Geez, it was just a joke," he says, throwing whatever-it-is he was holding at Renée. "Get over it, four-eyes."

— and that's when Carlos recognizes the shape: a detached adult man's hand.

If it's not Megan Wallaby (who should only be a few weeks old, much too young for school, but then, who knows the normal developmental stages of a disembodied hand?), it's someone very much like her. This isn't just children scuffling as they figure out interpersonal relations, this is serious bullying, and it needs some kind of adult intervention, now. Carlos crosses the bus lane, though he's forced to make a wide circle around the next school bus, which has the bad timing to materialize right in front of him.

Before he can get to the group, though, someone beats him to it: a freckled Corean man with a beaver daemon, whose shirt has an official-looking "Night Vale Elementary Volunteer" badge pinned to it. Earl something, Carlos remembers. "What's going on here?"

Renée points to the boys. "They were pickin' on Megan, Mr. Harlan."

"Was not," says the tall boy (about four and a half feet, Carlos guesses as he gets closer, the only one of the group who already has a few inches on Renée) sullenly. "I was just kidding around."

"Holding someone off the ground and shaking them when they can't fight back is not 'kidding around'," says Carlos, chapel coat swirling behind him as he joins the group next to Renée. She's still holding Megan, whose fingers in turn are curled around what must be her daemon, in the form of a soft white-furred rabbit's foot.

Earl Harlan takes in Carlos's arrival with a complicated expression — disapproval? resentment? — but shovels it away fast and turns back to the boys. "And if the experimental theologian says so, it must be true, right?" To the ringleader: "You. Come with me." To the others: "Consider yourselves warned. Don't pull anything like this again, or you just might be getting a scarlet envelope in the mail."

He shepherds the one kid away without a second look at Carlos (who's trying to figure out whether that's a Harry Potter reference or a Scarlet Letter pun), while the others scatter. Renée puts Megan on the ground, where the younger girl's daemon shifts into a largeish monkey's hand, and they both scamper away across the sidewalk.

"It was good of you to defend her," says Carlos to Renée.

The girl shrugs. "They shouldn't be pickin' on her. She's just a..."

Random body part? Voiceless, nearly-helpless freak of nature?

"...kindergartener. How come you're here?"

Carlos flushes. "Oh, right! I, ah, I'm here to pick you up. Your dad wants me to watch you at the chapel this afternoon."

Renée's daemon goes hummingbird, perches on her shoulder, then shifts into a bushy-tailed squirrel and narrows his eyes at Carlos.

"Don't worry, it'll be fun. If you have to stay long enough, we can make apple pie."

The suspicion fades; she recognizes the code phrase from the note Steve slipped Carlos. "I don't like apple pie," she says as she follows Carlos to the truck. "Or rhubarb, or invisible. Can we make key lime? I like key lime."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"...and no one is allowed to do experiments on her. Got it?"

Everyone on the team agrees, though the biologists are clearly itching to get Renée's DNA under a microscope.

Carlos shows her where to find the bathroom and the ordinater room, "where I'll probably be working if you need me, and if I'm not there, just ask any of the team except Mateo to track me down," then sets her up in his office. Among other things, it has the nicest chair in the building. "Can I get you anything for now?"

"Nuh-uh. I've got a bunch of book chapters to read." Renée pulls the Spanish translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle out of her backpack. Her daemon turns into an ermine and curls around the back of her neck like a scarf.

"Do you like the book?" asks Carlos, trying to make conversation.

"No. The main character is so dumb. I bet if his double appeared he wouldn't even have to kill it, because it would just lie around and not even do anything."

Carlos squeezes Isaña just a bit closer as the bruises on his neck throb. "Well, the Sandstorm was...pretty chaotic, over here. How did it go for you?"

"It was fine. Miz Wilman got a lot of our doubles when people in class couldn't get them on their own. And I got Miz Wilman's double. Right through the head! She said it was a real clean shot, and gave me a gold star."

"Um...congratulations." Something Renée said back when he first met her comes to Carlos's mind, and he adds, "Guess that makes up for not getting the test score to have second-best aim in your class, huh?"

"No, I have first-best aim now officially," says the girl. "Dumb Misty Craton got her neck broke by her double, an' Eduardo Montez died on Valentine's Day when his apartment blew up."

It strikes Carlos that of course Night Vale has an abnormally large ratio of elementary-school-age children. By the time they hit adulthood, only the bravest, smartest, fastest, and/or luckiest are left.

"I'm, um, sorry to hear that," he says. "I guess I'll just leave you to it now, okay?"

Renée's already absorbed in her book as he shuts the door.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

After a solid hour of throwing around various portal-related theories with Henriette, Adriana, and Köhler, Carlos calls for a head-clearing break. They have plenty of other projects to work on; time to focus on something else for a while, and see if any bright ideas come together in their subconscious minds in the meantime.

He and Isaña head for their office automatically, planning to poke around at the timepiece collection some more, and are halfway down the hall when they remember Renée's in there. Carlos turns slowly in place, trying to pick a direction to go in.

The motion brings him face-to-face with a door they almost never open.

On a whim, Carlos goes in...then immediately turns back around and heads for the supply closet. Nobody's bothered to dust the bloodstone circle room for months, and it shows.

Armed with a couple of dustcloths and a fresh canister of the compressed air they use for cleaning sensitive equipment, he returns. It's a small room, less than six feet by six feet, and the walls are the same blank white as most of the building, but the intricately-carved molding and soft light fixtures evenly spaced around the walls indicate that it was designed to be something special. Carlos tackles the lights and the molding first, handing a cloth to Isaña so she can get started on the floor.

"I don't think anybody's been in here since Dotan used to use it as a prayer room," remarks Isaña.

"Let's hope failure to maintain your bloodstone circles isn't a capital offense," says Carlos. "And remember to check on the ones in the houses when we get home."

The circle itself is on a pedestal raised a few inches off the ground, and has a threadbare cushion sitting in the center. Carlos takes a minute to drag the cushion out into the hall and smack it a few times, sending clouds of dust drifting through the air, then wipes off the pedestal under it before setting it back in place.

Isaña sits by one of the stones and pokes it with a claw. They're all unpolished lumps of rock, twenty in this set, ranging from the size of Carlos's fist to roughly twice that. "Night Vale has to go for the dramatic name, doesn't it? Can't call it a heliotrope circle, that doesn't sound ominous enough."

"Oh, I don't know." Carlos picks one up, turning it over to blow jets of compressed air across the rough surface, cleaning off all the nooks and crannies. "Cryptocrystalline mixture of quartz and its monoclinic polymorph moganite with inclusions of iron oxide probably sounds a lot more intimidating than 'bloodstone' to a lot of people."

He runs a new dustcloth over the scuffed surface of the pedestal and sets the rock back down.

They don't study geology, either, but they've taken the time to look up heliotrope. It's really just dark green chalcedony with bits of red chalcedony scattered through it, in a way that superficially resembles spots of blood.

"Interesting that you'd get so much of this specific color combination that it gets its own name," says Isaña, moving around the pedestal across from Carlos. "Why not just 'rainbow-speckled stone' with lots of different varieties? Gold with blue flecks, brown with white flecks, black with turquoise flecks...chalcedony comes in all those colors, right?"

"As far as I remember." Carlos sets the next bloodstone down and picks up the one after that. "There must have been some kind of geological situation that created a lot of red, and then an event that broke all the red apart, and then different circumstances after that created mostly dark green in the same areas."

They move around the circle in silence, appreciating the subtleties and patterns in each stone, not thinking about anything more consequential than rocks.

"Carlos?"

"Hm?"

"When the green chalcedony forms around the fragments of red, trapping them inside...do you think it's anything like electrum forming around an insect, trapping it inside?"

Carlos looks between his daemon and the rock he's currently cleaning. Geologically, sure, it's probably similar. But in terms of their field...? "We couldn't make a spyglass out of heliotrope, I know that much."

"But people in Night Vale think it's special for something. What if that's not just superstition? What if..."

"...it's related to how they interact with Rusakov particles?" finishes Carlos. "It could be completely unrelated, of course, but we've never even tried to test them, so how would we know?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Which is how Carlos ends up on his knees in the middle of the chapel bloodstone circle, the door safely closed, his hands cupped around Isaña in his lap.

Running a test.

"Do we pray to the stones?" he asks — under his breath, as if whoever or whatever they're supposed to address might be listening already, and be offended not to be recognized.

"I don't think so," whispers his daemon. "Cecil always just talks about praying in a bloodstone circle."

"Well, we're not going to start focusing on Mateo's idea of God," says Carlos. "Or even Dotan's former idea of God. And definitely not whatever smiling God Raimondi started talking about."

"We could always try hailing the Glow Cloud."

Carlos's mouth twitches in a bleak smile. "Not if we want to remember our observations afterward."

They sit in silence for a bit. Nothing disturbs the stillness. The room must be soundproofed, or at least have better noise insulation than the rest of the building.

"Who would we absolutely trust?" murmurs Isaña. "Not just to have their facts right, but to care about us, and about the world in general? And to have some kind of moral authority that we would respect?"

Carlos thinks about it.

Then he closes his eyes, lifts his face toward the sky, and says, "All right, Dr. Belacqua, I know there's no way you decided to linger after your death any longer than necessary...but on the off chance that any of your atoms are floating around here with some stray good advice...I could really use it right now."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

He opens his eyes...and there's noise. Equipment humming. People talking in low, urgent voices.

He's still in the bloodstone circle room, but the door is thrown wide, there's a camera and one of their old Rusakov meters set up near the entrance, and it looks like half the team is crowded in the hall, looking at equipment or arguing with each other.

"How long have you all been there?" exclaims Carlos.

Everyone in sight jumps; Fleur muffles a squeak of astonishment. "Oh, thank god, he's awake," says Henriette, then calls down the hall, "He's awake!"

Okay, now Carlos is officially Not Pleased. He doesn't want to make a habit of coming to consciousness with a chunk of time missing. "How long was I out?"

"Since we found you, it has been nearly twenty minutes," says Köhler. He taps his head: "By my own count, not by any timepiece."

"That wasn't long after you called a break on the brainstorming session," adds Henriette. "Don't move yet. We'd like to get consistent readings on how long it takes you to come down from this thing."

So he's only lost about twenty minutes...? "Sorry if this is a stupid question, but are you sure I didn't just fall asleep?"

"You did not react to attempts to wake you," says Köhler. "Your pupils, they were not light-responsive. And the Rusakov concentration in this room has reached levels that are...unusual."

"Not alethiometer unusual, but definitely elevated," clarifies Henriette. "Steve's kid thought you were having a vision. Do you remember anything in particular?"

Carlos pulls off his glasses and massages his temples. He's willing to stay in place, because they're going to need accurate experimental theology to confirm that nothing happened, but...but...but no, wait, something happened. He remembers...he saw....

It's so hard to hang on to. Not like the man in the tan jacket, or Khoshekh under a bit of Cecil's don't-look-at-me magic, where the knowledge slips away like water; more like the true forms of angels, overwhelming and multi-dimensional and impossible to comprehend with only a human understanding of spacetime. "I don't know. There was something. But I've lost it now."

"Told you it was a vision," puts in Renée, appropriately smug.

She is, Carlos realizes, holding a half-finished chocolatl ice cream bar. He switches to Spanish: "Are you finished with your homework, young lady?"

It's hard not to look shifty-eyed when you're guilty, and even more so when you have extra eyes, but the kid does her best. "...Yes?"

Carlos sighs. In English, he asks, "Who gave her the ice cream?"

Fleur's eyes go wide. "Were we not supposed to? You didn't say anything about what to feed her."

A pack of experts in their field, multiple degrees each, and they can't manage to coordinate taking care of a nine-year-old. (Said nine-year-old, sensing where this conversation is going, starts trying to scarf down the rest of her ice cream bar extra-fast.) "Don't do that, kiddo, you'll get brain freeze," says Carlos, back in Spanish. "We're going to let you finish it, okay? Just...don't tell your dad."

Chapter Text

At his first marksmanship lesson, Carlos spends most of his time learning how to load and unload a gun, and the rest demonstrating that he barely has enough aim to hit the paper target, let alone the (horned, for some reason) silhouette printed on it.

The beginner's class is just him, a few of his teammates, and a couple of homeschooled local tweens. He's not the worst of the group — that would be Fleur, whose hands at this point shake when she even tries to hold a firearm — but Henriette and Köhler both turn out to have decent aim. Mateo starts off mediocre, until the instructor tells him to quit pretending; he says sheepishly that he didn't want to make the others feel bad, then shoots the target silhouette in the head three times and gets bumped up to the master-level class.

Li Hua and Li Hua tested out of the need for classes at all, so they're able to use the range for self-directed practice. Brad is off at physio, while Adriana refused to come at all, citing conscientious objections.

"My five-year-old shoots better than you," says the instructor at the end, and the sad thing is Carlos doesn't think she's kidding. "See you next week! Maybe you go bowling in the meantime, practice your aim, huh?"

It's as good a meeting-place as any, so before they re-converge with Mateo and the Li Huas, Carlos tells Henriette, Fleur, and Köhler to join him that evening at the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They even get lucky: there's a team of mysterious hooded spectres in Lane Six.

Carlos steers his team to Lane Eight, close enough to the spectres to discourage any observers, but not so close that the bone-chilling cold and maddening static will make it hard to play. It's going to be awkward enough already, given that it's hard to focus when your daemon's attention is elsewhere, and their daemons are all going to be huddled under the seats having a serious conversation while their humans bowl even more mindlessly than usual.

Henriette's alpine marmot, Fleur's grackle, and Köhler's binturong listen intently as Isaña explains everything they now know about the murder-happy mysterious organization operating in Desert Bluffs.

"Palmero could tell you nothing else?" presses the binturong.

"It was upsetting him too much to focus on," says Isaña. "Even if there was more to see, he was in no shape to interpret it."

Above them, Henriette rolls a ball in an awkward, wobbling path down the lane. The others watch in apparent fascination as it swerves close to the gutter before taking down two pins.

"We could try getting another alethiometrist to work on it," suggests the marmot. To Köhler's daemon: "Rozarilde, how much pull do you have with the researchers at Heidelberg?"

"A request from us, it would become first on their list for consideration," says the binturong. "We will consider how to phrase it so as not to be too alarming."

"Not too alarming?" echoes Fleur's grackle. "Two people are dead!"

"And we don't want anyone getting scared enough to go charging in unprepared," says Henriette's marmot. "Or to...I don't know, take our warnings seriously and decide to go all-out and drop a nuclear bomb on the place. It would kill every innocent person there. It might or might not kill every innocent person here, depending on how well their resistance to the local deadly-radiation levels holds up."

Isaña winces. "We didn't even think of that."

"It does appear that a holding pattern is the safest course of action for the greatest number of people," says Köhler's binturong solemnly. "Difficult though the decision is."

Fleur bowls a spare. Carlos and the others respond with vague applause, then Köhler takes his turn. It's disorienting, only physically able to hear parts of the conversation below, when intellectually he knows that almost his full attention is on it. (How do witches pull this off so well?)

"Could we at least tell someone in town?" asks the grackle. "The City Council, the Sheriff's secret police, the PTA, Josie and her tall winged friends who I'm not saying are angels, the Boy Scouts...?"

The marmot harrumphs. "What are the Boy Scouts going to do, tie knots at them?"

"If the local PTA goes on memory-wiping take-no-prisoners vigilante rescue missions, I'm sure the local Boy Scouts have a few tricks up their sleeves," says Isaña. "But as long as we can't go after these people ourselves, we can hardly send innocent local citizens to do it for us."

Someone taps Carlos on the shoulder, making him realize he's been staring aimlessly at the boarded-up Lane Five for a while now. "You're up."

He bowls a miserably low score, distracted by wondering if Teddy Williams' definitely-not-stray-raccoons "underground army marching on Night Vale" could be persuaded to march on Desert Bluffs instead.

By the time he sits again, Isaña is explaining why they chose not to share this with the rest of the team. "We're too uncertain about how Mateo or the Li Huas will react, and we didn't want to scare the students. They're not in immediate danger, as far as we can tell...and they're so close to leaving town when they were actually scheduled to leave." To Fleur's and Henriette's daemons: "We figure it should be up to you to decide what to tell each of your advisees."

"The students are adults," protests the binturong. "If they are trustworthy, they should know. The young man, at least."

Henriette's marmot frowns at her. "But not the young woman, is that it?"

"If you mean to insinuate that their gender is the issue, I assure you, that is not the case. I only consider that he is the more self-directed of the two."

"Brad, more self-directed?" echoes the marmot in disbelief. "Sure, he's a smart guy, and he's gotten more assertive since he's been here...."

"...but Adriana is the one who does things like get involved with the local tarantula community, and talk her way into giving guest presentations at the local schools during Poetry Week," finishes Isaña.

(During the annual Poetry Week, which starts in a few days, the City Council lifts its ban on public descriptions of the moon. Also, on writing utensils. Adriana was the one who realized this would be a perfect opportunity to explain to the children of Night Vale that the moon is made of rock, and already has a flashlight and some colored balls of styrofoam ready to demonstrate why it has phases.)

"Her command of the language allows her to engage with the population more directly. I do not deny it," says the binturong stiffly.

"Adriana is more assertive than Brad in any setting, regardless of language, unless it's directly related to his discipline," says Isaña. "With all due respect, Rozarilde, the rest of us have been working with them far longer than you have."

Carlos's turn again.

It's all physical action, he reminds himself. No overthinking allowed. No overthinking possible, in this state. Just line up your body, point your eyes at the target like the firearm instructor told you, and move.

His first shot rolls straight into the gutter.

The next two manage to take out a couple of pins, but not many, and he records the score with a muted sense of disappointment before sinking back into his seat.

The conversation underneath hasn't gotten any easier. Isaña is very tense now, anxious to smooth things over...but apparently hearing that some of his associates are dead has left Henriette's marmot with no patience for low-level sexism. "And you, as the white guy, just happen to have the ability to be objective."

"Again you try to make this a question of race and gender," says Rozarilde crossly. "We have spent many decades working in this field, with a respectable pace of publication. In our younger years, we had the privilege of attending several lectures by Dr. Belacqua herself. We have more than enough experience to make fair judgments on the work of our colleagues, and, if I may be frank, it is an insult that you would say otherwise."

"Oh, of course. Fair judgments." The marmot isn't as large or as carnivorous as a binturong, and looks a lot cuddlier at a glance, but with big paws and bristling fur he doesn't look like someone you'd want to tangle with. "Just like that time you made the fair judgment that our work was not as theoretically rigorous as our brother's."

"This is the source of your anger? And you accuse us of having our objectivity compromised? There are few things more able to cloud one's reason than the jealous rivalry of a sibling."

"Wait," says Fleur's grackle, who hasn't spoken much this whole time. He and Isaña are a fraction of the size of the other two, and his species' defenses are based on flight, not on armoring up. "Wait, you don't have a...."

"Exactly," says Henriette's marmot.

Fleur sends a ball careening down the lane. It only takes out four pins, but in the loudest way possible.

"Do they just...not know?"

The marmot sighs. "Apparently not."

Oblivious though Köhler and his daemon may have been up to this point, they're smart enough to start putting pieces together now. "You have no brother," realizes the binturong. "Henri was...you? An alias of some sort?"

"I don't think it counts as an alias when it's the name our parents gave us," says the marmot dryly.

The game stutters to a halt, with Köhler turning to look at Henriette. His focus sharpens as his daemon comes padding out from under the seats, rising up on her back legs to do the same. Henriette's own daemon rejoins her; she leans back in her seat, folds her arms, and raises her eyebrows at Köhler.

The look on his face is priceless.

Isaña presses herself against Carlos's leg; he scoops her off the ground, their attention undivided once more. "Is there going to be a problem, Dr. Köhler?" he asks, aligning himself with Henriette, just in case there's any question about whose side he'll take if there is. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Fleur doing the same.

Köhler turns several interesting shades of red, but whatever he's thinking, he manages to keep a lid on it. "There is no problem."

He doesn't say another word for the entire rest of the night.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

All I want to do
is research on Rusakov
particles. They're great.

Here's the thing nobody told Carlos about Poetry Week: it's mandatory.

Half the team is relishing in the ability to use writing utensils again. Carlos, for his part, has gotten so used to capturing his thought processes in digital formats that switching back to ballpoint seems like more effort than it's worth. Even his attempts to scribble haiku in a $0.99 notebook at the minimum rate of one every fifteen minutes feel clumsy, and not just because he's never been a poet.

"It's not like we can't write," he says to Isaña, putting down the pen and getting back to the ordinater. He's almost finished with the process of untangling the Desert Bluffs Rusakov readings from their own, unmaking any conclusions they had tried to draw from what they now know to be untrustworthy data. "We are perfectly capable at...using words for...things."

"Experimental-theology things," says his daemon.

"Exactly! Those are legitimate things."

His paper on Rusakov particles and anbaromagnetic field theory, as written with the recently-departed Gerald, is officially accepted to Progress of Theoretical and Experimental Physics. The one on electrum he wrote with Fleur, plus enough input from Brad to add him as a co-writer, is appearing in the next issue of the Journal of the Optical Society of New Denmark.

Between Henriette's semiregular articles for Physics Today and Köhler's paper in the current issue of Biophysical Reviews and Letters, their publication record is impeccable. Meanwhile, Adriana's thesis keeps getting longer, while Mateo and the Li Huas will be able to turn out plenty of papers once they marshal their biological research into something peer-review-suitable. None of them have anything to be embarrassed about just because the requirements of Poetry Week trip them up.

Carlos takes up the pen once more and writes it:

Most of us have now
officially been published
since moving to town!

There. Now he's good for half an hour. Should be enough time to get some real work done.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"This is all very intriguing," says Henriette, idly scratching the ears of the marmot daemon sitting by her chair, "but would you mind explaining to us exactly what we're looking at? In lay terms, please."

Most of them are gathered in the ordinater room, where images of genetic material from the Sandstorm doubles, the tarantulas, Hiram McDaniels, and the whirring blue creature are projected on the screen up front. It's all a meaningless grey hodgepodge to Carlos, but the biologists have circled a bunch of areas in red — one or two on Blue, dozens on McDaniels — that clearly have some significance to people who know how to interpret them.

Mateo and one of the Li Huas look at each other and shrug. "I guess," says Mateo, "you could say it's like their DNA is being...washed out."

Henriette spins in her chair and points at Carlos. "See? What did I tell you?"

"That is not a technical term!" protests Li Hua.

"We've been trying to write a sonnet about it," adds the other Li Hua. "Can anyone think of a good rhyme for 'dragon'?"

After a brief digression while everyone tries to think of a rhyme other than "wagon", Köhler gruffly pulls them back on track. "We believe there to be degradation related to living in another world. The blue creature shows symptoms of poisoning, but these appear to be a separate issue. Even if the atmosphere is breathable and the food digestible, the daemon sickens. The early effects can be seen on a cellular level."

"So this starts happening immediately?" asks Adriana. "I mean, Blue was only in this world for a few hours."

Speaking of time, Carlos can't remember how long it's been since he last wrote a poem. He hastily throws one together.

How long does it take
for life in another world
to erode your soul?

"True, but we have no idea whether the last world it came from was its native world or not," says one Li Hua, while her wren daemon preens his wings. "We're going to need more test subjects that are capable of communication before we have any chance of figuring out a rate of degradation."

"And there's so much we can't test at all if we don't have a stable, open window to work with," adds Mateo. "Is the effect permanent? Would it get better if you returned to your own world, or stabilize, or just keep getting worse?"

"If you're going to ask if there's any way to open a window ourselves, forget about it," says Henriette. "We don't know how, and we're not going to test it. Badly-made portals leak Rusakov particles out into the void. Or maybe that's a property of any portal. Josie's tall friends sure are adamant about wanting to close them all, no matter what."

The legacy of
Will Parry must be upheld.
(Turns out he's real!)

A knock on the door pauses the conversation. Carlos tenses, and notices Adriana freezing up completely, remembering what happened the last time someone broke in on a presentation like this. But no doubles appear; no guns start firing; Fleur isn't even armed. "I hate to interrupt...."

"Then do not," says Köhler.

All right, so the man isn't going to completely change his ways overnight. At least now Fleur has the confidence to stand up straighter in response. "...but you're going to want to hear this: The dog park gates are open."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

I didn't even
realize the dog park had
gates. Just tall black walls.

Everyone on the team who isn't driving is using the time to catch up on their poetry quotas. Carlos included.

"How do the people who turn out books of this stuff pull it off?" he wonders out loud from the middle of the van. He's mining everything he sees and does for writing topics, and it's still a grueling pace to maintain.

"From what I understand, it's mostly writing about love and nature," says Henriette. She's driving, with her marmot daemon in the passenger seat. "And sometimes nature as a metaphor for love."

"So, various combinations of romance and botany?" summarizes Carlos. "There's no way I'm going to be able to keep this up for a week."

"You can write about whatever moves you," protests Fleur. She and Brad are in the back, carefully balancing their camera apparatus with the vehicle's now-standard equipment of two first-aid kits, flashlights, batteries, and a few basic tools. "Family, death, places you've lived, the human condition..."

"...graphs, charts with lots of data, Erlenmeyer flasks filled with bubbling liquids," says Carlos. "How many poems do you know about experimental theology?"

"Some of my favorite poems are about experimental theology!"

"Such as...?"

He's expecting Fleur to rattle off a couple of boring-sounding titles, at most.

Instead, she takes a deep breath and begins to recite:

 

Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, I would know him when we meet,
When I share my later findings, sitting humbly at his feet;
He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
We are working to completion, working on from then to now.

Pray remember that I leave you all my theory complete,
Lacking only certain data for your adding, as is meet,
And remember men will scorn it, 'tis original and true,
And the obliquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.

But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learned the worth of scorn,
You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn,
What for us are all distractions of men's fellowship and smiles;
What for us the Goddess Pleasure with her meretricious smiles.

You may tell that German College that their honor comes too late,
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant's fate.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

 

The cadence falls away as she finishes, leaving the thrum of the engine to fill an almost musical silence.

Carlos realizes he's holding Isaña pressed tight against his beating heart.

"Wow," says Li Hua softly. "That was really something."

For a moment, like a vision, the words lifted him right out of his body. All he could feel was his place in the great golden chain of learning that flows, eternally, from generation to generation. He felt so many things, and he understood.

"Trochaic octameter, wasn't it? And without ever missing a beat or fudging a rhyme. Impressive how she...Are you crying?"

For a second Carlos is sure she's talking to him, until Brad, Fleur's advisee, sniffles, "Just somethin' in my eye."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Tall black gates have appeared in the smooth onyx walls, and stand wide open. The interior is barren, dark and shadowed even though the late-afternoon sun is still shining on the corner of Earl and Summerset, on the Raúl's, on the experimental theologians whose cars are parked a full street over, past a row of empty, weed-overgrown lots. Nothing in those except a couple of lone fence posts and the occasional brick.

"Excuse me again." It's the calm, dreamy voice of Intern Dana: sand cat daemon in her arms, ringlet curls falling loosely around her face. "Would it be all right if you stayed at this distance to do your experiments? The dog park is probably not supposed to be open, and Cecil is afraid...no, upset...no, Cecil is concerned for the people who are getting too close."

"That won't be a problem," says Carlos. The team fans out around him, ready with photo and video cameras, Rusakov-concentration measuring apparatuses, a Rutherford counter, and, in the case of both the Li Huas, a deadly weapon. Just in case.

"Thank you. Cecil will certainly appreciate it. Do you have any early observations to report? Our listeners will want to know, I think. They always seem to want to know this kind of thing."

"So far, all we know is what you can't see for yourself," says Carlos. "No trees or grass, no living creatures...no sign of the hooded spectres at this point, either...just that black stone monolith, and, um, a couple of frisbees and tennis balls."

Dana promises to pass it on, then starts forging through the grass of the vacant lot in front of them. There are a dozen curious Night Vale citizens already milling around the gates, and every once in a while someone new wanders up to the crowd. She's clearly trying to warn them, for all the good it does; even when some of them listen, new people are arriving faster than she can convince the waiting ones to back away.

Carlos and Adriana set up their best Rusakov apparatus, and observe.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The monolith is
humming? And my clothes feel too
tight. That, or too loose.

Carlos flips the page in a hurry. He's about eighty percent sure the monolith and/or its humming is having a hypnotic effect on people, which in his case is making him fidget a lot and feel hyper-aware of the way his clothing moves against his skin, but it isn't something he wants to analyze too hard. Especially since there's still a twenty percent chance that this...random fit of sensuality...is just something his body decided to throw at him.

Either way, there's only one thing he can do to handle this: ignore it, let it pass, and absolutely do not think about —

Silk and lace moving against Cecil's skin, as Cecil hums with pleasure....

— that. That is exactly the kind of mental image he can't be dealing with right now.

(Maybe later.)

He's distracting himself with that old standby, Stanislaus Grumman's formulation for the equation of solar time, when some of the citizens across the street begin venturing into the dog park.

"Don't go in there!" yells Carlos.

It does about as much good as you would expect. He and Isaña lean toward the gates, wanting to reach out and pull people back, but stayed by their promise to Dana (no longer visible in the crowd). Besides, every instinct is screaming at them not to get too close.

That's when Adriana starts walking dazedly forward.

She doesn't respond to words; Carlos has to grab her and physically drag her back. Down the road, he spots Mateo and Brad doing the same with Köhler. Of the people closer to the park, only a handful are resisting, forcing themselves backward with visible effort as the others wander through the gates...

...while their daemons stop at the threshold.

"They aren't going in," hisses Isaña. "Carlos, I don't think we can go in!"

As the crowd thins out, Carlos spots Dana's sand cat daemon in the middle of the others, pacing and trying to give orders that nobody takes. Dana must be inside. Hypnotized herself or just carried along by the rest of the group, there's no way to tell. None of them can be lucid enough to understand what they're risking, even if there are people in the crowd who at conscious moments would understand the true nature of the dog park.

A stretch of land that's dead. Devastated on a profound level, like a scar in the fabric of the world.

Henriette appears at Carlos's side. "Is she okay?"

"I don't know," says Carlos, around the headlock he has Adriana in. "But as long as she doesn't start struggling, I can hold her back until she snaps out of it. Don't we have rope or anything lying around?"

"We'll pick it up on our next shopping trip," says Henriette grimly. "If we had some now, we could try pulling people out of there...."

A low, loud, grinding sound cuts her off. The rumble of stone moving against stone.

The gates are closing.

"Wha...?" breathes Adriana. Now she's struggling; Carlos gets a faceful of her hair. "What are...? Let me go!"

"Hang on for a few more minutes so we're sure you're okay," Henriette urges her. "You were trying to walk toward the dog park. What's the last thing you remember thinking about?"

"I don't know. The park, I guess."

"And before that? Were you letting your mind wander at all?"

"No! I was totally focused!"

Henriette grimaces. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that that's what let it get to you. Me, I was daydreaming about Breaking Bad. Brad was working on his fantasy football lineup. Carlos, how focused were you?"

"I was running through Grumman's formulations for a while there," says Carlos, truthfully.

"That sounds like you, all right."

Before them, the gates fuse shut.

And on the near side of the once-again-solid black walls, the first couple of daemons start to disappear.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

I can't stop thinking
about Cecil Palmero's

"Just tomato soup in a bread bowl for me today," says Carlos, in the wheat and wheat by-products speakeasy below Big Rico's. "I'm supposed to meet Cecil. Is he here yet?"

The woman taking his order has a hollow gaze and rings him up with mechanical blankness, but the garter-snake daemon looped around her shoulders raises his head to eye level with Carlos. "No sign of him yet! Oh, this is sssso exciting. Who invited who?"

"Um, I asked him to come down here."

"How ssssweet. We were ssssure you'd never get around to it."

"I...." Carlos's face heats up. "This isn't a date! We are not meeting for personal reasons!"

"Of course, of coursssse. Have a seat. Your food will be with you sssshortly."

Carlos lets himself into the corner booth, scoops Isaña into his lap, and angles himself so there's no way someone could look over his shoulder at his notebook.

It's true, this particular meeting is not a date. It's about a serious concern over the health of a mutual acquaintance, which means it's also probably not a very tactful time to suggest a date. But. But the next time it's appropriate, Carlos is definitely making a very serious consideration of the possibility of raising the question of whether Cecil might at all have a chance of being interested in maybe spending some time with him of the variety that could wind up with kissing, potentially.

He doesn't remember when he stopped even pretending to be suspicious of Cecil, but apparently it's happened.

He stares down at his latest half-formed haiku, where he's written himself neatly into a corner by leaving only five syllables to capture all the reasons these feelings for Cecil crept up on him and burrowed into his chest. The page is filling up with scratched-out lines.

I can't stop thinking
about Cecil Palmero's
beautiful voice
voice, eyes, smile, and
awful outfits and
voice, eyes, mouth, daemon
voice and other things
way of rescuing
way of looking at
way of smiling when
confusing way of
confusing, stunning

"We could try writing something longer than a haiku," whispers Isaña.

"We're not putting in that much effort just to meet our Poetry Week quota," says Carlos irritably.

A waitress comes over with his soup, delicious and steaming hot. Carlos blows on it a few times, then goes back to his attempts at verse while waiting for it to cool down.

He hears Cecil before seeing him; the bar is around a corner, but anyone in Night Vale would recognize the tones and rhythms of a certain low voice addressing the bartender. Carlos hastily slaps the notebook shut and crams it into his bag, paper tearing and crumpling, before his dear friend-and-possibly-more makes it over to the booth.

I can't stop thinking
about Cecil Palmero's...
frankly, everything.

Cecil looks as composed in person as he sounded on the phone — that is, almost normal, but with tells that betray the tension underneath. There's extra worry in the way he carries his shoulders, in the disheveled hair, in the way his shirt is hanging unevenly...well, no, maybe the ruffles are just supposed to look like that. But the rest of the observation still holds.

"Hey, Cecil," says Carlos, doing his best impression of a normal person who has not just been writing love poetry, nope, all business here. "Thanks for making the time...I got the impression you were busy. I'm really sorry to interrupt."

"You said this was important, and I trust you," says Cecil simply. "What do you need?"

Deep breath. "I need you to find Dana's daemon."

The tote bag with the alethiometer is slung over Cecil's shoulder, as requested, but he makes no move to take it out. Gazing casually across the table at Carlos, he says, "I can only assume Eustathias is with Dana."

"She's not." (Dana, like Cecil, is one of the rare people with a same-sex daemon.) "The gates of the dog park closed when Dana was inside."

"And Eustathias was outside?"

"Yes!" How could she not be? Unless...is their whole theory wrong?

"Then it seems likely that both of them are remaining as close to the walls as possible," says Cecil with a shrug. "If you cannot find her there...well, Carlos, surely by now you realize that interning at Night Vale Community Radio is a dangerous job."

Carlos doesn't understand this conversation at all. There's no reason for Cecil to be giving him the runaround instead of looking up the answer. Or, if Cecil doesn't have to look up where Eustathias is because he already knows, why wouldn't he just tell Carlos directly...?

In his lap, Isaña motions to be lifted up. Carlos moves her to the tabletop, next to his barely-touched soup.

"Cecil, we know," she says. "We know how you and Khoshekh got your range."

Cecil snaps to attention, every line of his body tensing, all pretense of nonchalance vanishing like a puff of dust in the breeze.

Now Carlos understands. "We deduced a lot of it, and Josie filled us in on the rest," he explains, keeping his voice low and resting a hand against his daemon's shell. "And we understand that witch-lore being secret is a big deal, all right? That's why we didn't tell anyone else when we saw Eustathias sneaking away from the dog park, not even our own teammates. It's why we didn't mention any details on the phone, and said we had to meet here, where we're not under observation."

Eyes falling closed, Cecil massages his forehead with one hand. He doesn't answer them either way.

"Cecil, please...if they're going through a, a separation ordeal, then they're going to be in pain, and they probably have no idea what's happening to them. We can't get to Dana right now, but we have to find her daemon. Or...if you've already done something about it, then please tell us. And if we can help, let us help."

Without looking up, Cecil says, "Khoshekh found Eustathias twenty minutes ago. He's taking her to Josie's now. She will be told everything she needs to know."

It's the best answer Carlos could have hoped for. "Thank you," he breathes, relaxing for what feels like the first time in hours.

Cecil nods. He looks very tired.

"I...I'm sorry I dragged you all the way out here for nothing," adds Carlos. He likes to think he's getting better at knowing when Night Vale needs the help of experimental theology versus when its own inexplicable mechanisms are more than enough to protect it, but he still overshoots sometimes.

"You did the right thing," says Cecil softly. "It was good of you to care."

So that's that. Right?

Then where is this ongoing awkwardness coming from? Carlos gathers Isaña into his hands, trying to figure out how else he's misstepped, why he still feels like he needs to apologize for something. He's seen Cecil overwhelmed before, whether it's from a physical attack on his daemon or personal shock and revulsion, but he's never seen Cecil in this kind of quiet struggle with a problem Carlos can't even identify.

"Can I buy you a muffin or something?" he tries.

Cecil shakes his head. "I should go. There is somewhere I need to be."

He doesn't move, though.

"Carlos...."

Carlos holds his breath.

"You must not judge my mother."

This is so out of left field that all Carlos can do is blink at him. "What?"

Again Cecil sits up straighter, hand falling away from his face as he meets Carlos's gaze with confusion, then suspicion, then something closed-off and hurt and angry. "You said you knew."

Carlos's mind flies back through the conversation. "Oh — no, we just meant, in general, we understand how a person gets a witch's range — not anything specific, not about your mother, or you — we didn't mean that."

He tries to shrink back into his side of the booth as Cecil takes a couple of deep, shaky breaths. It was an accident, he didn't trick Cecil on purpose, but barring a timely Glow Cloud intervention he can't un-know the hint Cecil just unwittingly handed him, and there's no way he can avoid running with it. They both know Carlos thinks too much to stop himself from putting one and one together and hypothesizing two.

"We're sorry," says Isaña again.

"You didn't mean it," echoes Cecil, half to himself. "You had no idea. Of course Josie would never...foolish, foolish Cecil."

Flashing back on the pain he remembers of even the mildest forced separation, Carlos hugs Isaña against his chest.

At last Cecil rallies, pulling the mask of calm most of the way back on. "Then there is one more thing you must understand," he says, voice hardly shaking at all. "My mother...saw things. True things. Without ever needing to touch an alethiometer. And one of the things she saw was that, some day, Khoshekh and I would need to have a range like this. For the sake of...the town, or the world, or something like that. She never did explain that part clearly."

Carlos nods, smart enough to keep his mouth shut. All the understanding in the world isn't going to keep whatever would come out of his mouth from sounding pretty damn judgmental.

"And on that note, you must excuse me." This time, Cecil actually stands up. "There is someone I need to be with."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Two days later, when Carlos and Fleur set out for the store to pick up a few harnesses and some lengths of sturdy coal-silk rope, Fleur hands Carlos the cheap notebook he's seen her writing in on-and-off since Poetry Week began. "Take a look at this while we're on the road, tell me what you think."

While she drives, Carlos reads the first few pages. It's a complete draft of her plan for running several long-term studies on the dog park. Detailed, systematic, with built-in schedules and provisions for making sure no single experimental theologian has to think about any of the data for too long. "At a first look, this is impressive."

"You think? This week really inspired me to finish it."

"Understandable." If it works, maybe they can learn how to prevent certain horrific things from happening again. Carlos flips through the rest of it, taking in the general outline. "Did you really write the whole thing in iambic pentameter?"

Fleur ducks her head, sheepish. "I was a theater major for a while before I switched to physics, remember? Some things just stick with you."

Chapter Text

In the wake of Carlos's not-quite-vision in the chapel bloodstone circle, most of the team have been taking turns attempting to duplicate it, this time cameras and measuring apparatus trained on them from the start.

Mateo cites religious misgivings and refuses to try. For the rest, it goes nowhere. Even after a sheepish Carlos details the "asking the atoms of Dr. Belacqua for advice" mindset he had gotten himself into, they can't seem to replicate it. Maybe self-consciousness is making it harder to get in the mood; they take away the recording devices. Still no results.

Until the evening before they plan to start studying the dog park. That's when Mateo stumbles out into the living room of the larger rental house with unfocused eyes, his big frame shaking, golden weasel daemon curled against his neck for the comforting pulse of his heartbeat.

"We tried it," he says, in a voice that makes the others (everyone except Köhler happens to be there) pause the movie and put down their popcorn. "We saw."

"What did you see?" asks Henriette, when it becomes clear Mateo isn't going to elaborate without some prompting.

"I don't know," says Mateo distantly.

"It was too big," adds his daemon. "Too many dimensions. Didn't fit in the world."

"Like the hypothetical true forms of angels?" asks Carlos.

Mateo blinks. "Yes. Yes...what that guy said."

"There was a...a light," puts in his daemon.

"A blinking light up on the clouded mountain," says Mateo.

He can't tell them what the phrase means, or even swear that any of the words are more than clumsy approximations of the things he's trying to encompass. It's still more than Carlos and Isaña manage to retain, so they count it as progress.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

We have to find out
everything we can. For the
sake of theology.

As a manifesto, it's too short to be anything but clumsy and unsubtle. As a poem, it'll keep Carlos from falling under quota. If he falls asleep within the next half hour, at least.

He opens his bedroom windows to get a breeze, sticks the poetry notebook in a drawer with a combination lock (the secret police or the Faceless Old Woman might sneak in and read it, and he at least wants them to have to make an effort), and stretches out on the sheets. Isaña is already there. With their expanded nine-foot range, he can go anywhere in his bedroom as long as she's on the near side of the bed, which means a lot less picking her up and putting her back down when he remembers some last-minute thing he has to do.

"Can't think too much about work tomorrow," whispers Isaña as his head lands on the pillow. "Have to think about something else."

"Our choices aren't exactly great," says Carlos softly.

Most of the things weighing on their minds, especially at this hour, are from the "horrific danger and how likely they are to survive it" category. And the rest...it's all Cecil. Fascinating, confusing, impossible Cecil. Unremarkably remarkable Cecil. Terrifying, caring, scheming, trusted Cecil. The Cecil whose face — now that he's letting himself think about this in detail — he wants to cup in his hands, whose fingers he wants running through his hair, whose mouth he really, really would like to try kissing some time.

How long is an appropriate time to wait before saying, hey, listen, I'm still really sorry for tripping you up into revealing that your mother horrifically abused you in a way you weren't at all ready for me to know about, but can we put that aside and make out?

"We have to give him space," murmurs Isaña, snuggling down beside Carlos. "Listen to the show, and that's all. Let him decide when he feels comfortable getting in touch with us."

"But it's never been him who gets in touch with us at all."

It's always been Carlos and the team calling on Cecil: to arrange some research with the alethiometer, or get an urgent piece of news out over the radio, or get Cecil's help coping with whatever Night Vale strangeness they had stumbled into. (Or to arrange a completely platonic non-date day trip.) Sure, Cecil used to come on way too strong once they were in the same room, but in retrospect, he never pushed his way into Carlos's space. If he had to do something like pick up a battered Carlos in the middle of the desert, or make sure their houses were ready for Dot Day, he was all business.

"We'll run into each other at the Raúl's some time," says Isaña stubbornly. "Or the bowling alley, or a PTA meeting, or...I don't know, some completely unexpected place. Our eyes will meet, and he'll say hi, and we'll say hi, and then everything will be fine."

Carlos wants to agree, but he can't make himself say it out loud. He rubs his daemon's ears and frets in silence.

Half an hour later, they still aren't asleep, so he unlocks the drawer and drags the notebook back out to write the first thing that comes to mind:

I have feelings for
Cecil. Pretty strong feelings.
Maybe lots of them.

(No one can ever, ever read these. Tomorrow, when Poetry Week is officially over, he's setting the notebook on fire.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The lineup for the day:

Carlos, Brad, and Fleur taking preliminary readings and photos around the perimeter of the dog park. Mateo and one of the Li Huas following at a much wider radius, not thinking too hard about what their colleagues are doing, but ready to step in and lay down covering fire if something starts to go wrong.

While the other two have their cameras, Carlos has a wheeled cart with one of their original Rusakov meters: the big clunky thing that looks vaguely like a Mars rover. The readings here are so low that they don't even have to use the high-sensitivity one. Isaña rides in the cart too, keeping watch in whatever direction Carlos isn't looking.

He walks twenty feet, marks the asphalt with a lump of chalk (the size and shape mean it counts as a paperweight, not a writing utensil), and takes a reading. Notes it down in his spreadsheet and repeats.

Only a hundred feet away from the blank onyx walls, the Rusakov concentration is uniformly, perilously plateaued. It's so low that Carlos's own presence, including the normal amount of Rusakov particles that surround an adult human being, is probably a huge skew in the data rather than a negligible blip. They'll have to try to rig up a way to do this by remote control.

Walk. Mark. Read. Record. Walk again, while thinking about something distracting.

Think about something distracting that is not holding Cecil in his arms and murmuring soothing words in Cecil's ears, while Isaña drags her claws through Khoshekh's beautiful fur.

...No? Okay then. Better luck next time. Mark. Read. Record.

It's mid-morning on another bright, hot, sunny day, and the dog park still seems to be swallowing light. Carlos wonders what it looks like from above right now. Arranging for some gyropter flights to get aerial views is still quite a way off in their plan.

Mark. Read. Record. Walk on, this time turning the corner onto Summerset.

There's a trio of mysterious hooded spectres lurking over by the wall.

As always, the spectres come in roughly the same sizes and proportions as adult humans, at least as far as their sizes and proportions can be guessed when they're swathed in shapeless, colorless robes. They don't speak, although sometimes static from nowhere crackles in the air around them. Thermometers record no change in temperature when they pass by, but humans feel a palpable chill in the air all the same.

Carlos doesn't know if they've seen him. He has no idea if they can see at all. Maybe they use echolocation, or navigate by sense of smell.

He keeps one eye on the spectres as he takes the next reading, hoping Brad and Fleur are doing the same. The numbers here have taken another dip. Statistically significant, or random variation? They'll have to map the readings to the video footage, check them against the distortions caused by hooded spectres.

Read. Record. Walk on, this time thinking about sitting with Cecil in the grass at the foot of a high mountain, but this time nuzzling Cecil's neck while Cecil's hands caress his back through the smooth silk of his chapel coat.

(Carlos doesn't own a silk chapel coat. He'll have to get one.)

Mark. Read. Record....

There are five spectres now. Can they walk right through the wall? "Where did the new ones come from?" whispers Carlos. "Did you see?"

"I was looking the other way," murmurs Isaña. "Are you sure you counted right before? In groups, they tend to blend together."

Carlos isn't sure, but either way, he doesn't like it. "Keep an eye on them."

He walks the next twenty feet, fretting over whether it's horribly presumptuous to daydream about Cecil touching him like this at all. Cecil hasn't mentioned having a crush on Carlos for months. Maybe he's moved on? That's a thing that happens. It's not like he was going to keep pining over Carlos for the rest of his life.

A couple of cars pass by on the road far behind him, across the row of vacant lots. Carlos makes the next chalk mark and sets the Rusakov measuring apparatus to take the next reading.

That's when a loud smack-smack-smack echoes through the empty air.

Carlos is excited-scared-curious about this completely-new piece of data until he realizes that it isn't coming from the dog park at all. It's behind them, across the row of vacant lots, where a small group of people and cars are gathered at an even greater distance than Li Hua and Mateo's patrol.

More than that: a group of small people. Maybe two adults, shepherding a pack of kids in tan uniforms. It's the Boy Scouts.

Which means the sound, caused by Scoutmaster Harlan's beaver daemon slapping her tail against the pavement, is a signal for them, not the experimental theologians. He enters the reading — it's dropped again — and eyes the spectres. Still five in the group near him, but now there are another two farther down the wall.

Walk another twenty feet. Chalk mark on the asphalt.

Straighten up and face the three Scouts who are closing the distance between them at a steady, fast-paced walk.

They're approaching Carlos as a team; three more are headed for Fleur, and another group of three moving in on Brad. Unsettled daemons switch between loping alongside them, soaring over their heads, and riding on their shoulders. As far as he can see, they're unarmed. (And he definitely looks. They're in the Cub Scout age range, maybe seven to eleven — plenty old enough to have more weapons training than Carlos does.)

Organized and semi-militarized or not, they're still young boys, which in this case means arguing with each other plus some friendly shoving. Voices drift across the grass: "My mom, my mom said —"

"You think they all know each other? All the outsiders?"

"No, but, no, but listen —"

Carlos takes the current Rusakov rating, keeping his ears open.

"Shut up, Petey, I'm askin' a question."

"Yeah, shut up, Petey. Why you wanna know?"

"I'm just askin'."

"I bet you wanna know if he knows the one who did the presentation about the moon."

"Shut up, I never said that!"

"Amal has a cru-ush, Amal has a cru-ush!"

"I do not!"

"You think she's pretty. You wanna kiss her."

"Shut up, I do not, and we're here!"

Tense situation or not, this is adorable. Carlos can't wait to tell Adriana that she's the latest team member to have a Night Vale citizen smitten with her at first sight.

He records the reading and faces the kids again. "Hey there, guys. Can I help you?"

"Uh-huh," says one of the boys — probably Petey, judging by the voice.

"You gotta come with us now, Mr. Experimental Theologian," adds the oldest of the three, a polite kid with braces who must be Amal. "It's real dangerous out here."

"That's Doctor Experimental Theologian," says Carlos, "and if it's dangerous, then you kids should —"

"Carlos!" squeaks Isaña.

One of the boys' daemons, bonobo-formed, grabbed her while Carlos was distracted, and is now loping away from the dog park. In moments she's pulling at the edge of their range, Carlos stumbling to follow.

He only staggers for a few seconds before turning it into a purposeful run. No matter how much advantage their unsettled daemons give them, these kids are still only half his size. He catches up to the one whose daemon is carrying Isaña — the one whose name he didn't catch, a red-haired boy about the age of Carlos's twin nephews — and in one swift move scoops him into the air. "Gotcha!" he exclaims.

The bonobo, whose range is probably smaller than Isaña's, stops short. And Amal's daemon, currently lynx-formed, catches up Isaña in her mouth and carries the armadillo onward, kitten-style.

Carlos can barely hold on to a single thrashing kid, let alone two. He puts down the redhead, as gently as possible when he's being yanked forward by his daemon, and gets back to keeping pace with Isaña.

Off to one side, he can see that Fleur is walking with the boys who approached her, no daemon-grabbing necessary. He can't see Brad unless he turns around, so he ends up staggering backward for a few steps to discover that the grad student is holding his ground. The boys' daemons can't touch his hamster, not when she's riding in his pocket and he can easily cover her with one hand.

"Listen, if you kids could slow down..." he pants, grabbing Amal's arm.

It only buys him a few seconds. Amal's daemon doesn't miss a beat in handing off Isaña to Petey's. They're in the vacant lot now, kicking up dirt, stepping lightly to avoid rocks and chunks of brick.

"...slow down and explain what's going on? I'm sure, if we could just talk, we could understand...."

From the sidewalk a few houses down from Harlan and the vans, Li Hua fires her gun. Once, twice. Mateo doesn't fire, but he's aiming.

This time Carlos grabs Petey around the waist and actively carries the kid backward, giving himself enough time to see the problem. The spectres are moving toward Brad, not walking so much as gliding across the pavement. Brad sees them too; he leaves the camera and starts backing away, but there's only so fast he can go. His leg is still recovering.

"Okay, boys, this has been fun, but you have to let me go," says Carlos, trying to sound more authoritative than scared. "I've got a colleague over there, and he's going to need my help right now."

"Uh-uh," says the red-haired boy, his daemon now lugging Isaña through the air in the form of a large bird. "You gotta come with us, like we said."

"Don't you have some law that says 'a Scout is Obedient'?"

"This is obeyin', duh," says Amal. "This is the rules. Scoutmaster Harlan says so."

Scoutmaster Harlan, for the record, is still out past the five-hundred-foot boundary of safety, at the rear of one of the troop's minivans. He's paying no attention to the kids, or the experimental theologians, or even the hooded spectres. Instead, he appears to be calmly pouring a series of plastic cups full of lemonade, or maybe fruit punch.

Carlos would really like to know what the hell Scoutmaster Harlan's deal is.

Li Hua fires a couple more shots. Either her aim isn't good enough at this distance or the spectres don't care, and she obviously has no plans on getting closer, no matter what. Mateo, in contrast, holsters his gun and sets out toward the park at a run.

Fleur, only halfway through the weeds, shouts Brad's name and pulls away from her own group of boys. With more awkward backwards running Carlos can take in the scene by flashes: her grackle daemon soaring almost eight feet above her head, the Scouts' daemons flying as owls and hawks but without enough range to reach, other Scouts still gathered around Brad as four spectres descend.

The remaining hooded spectres are gliding straight towards Fleur; Mateo gets to her first. Carlos catches his shout of "Don't!" far across the pavement — just as Brad breaks into incoherent yelling — then Mateo throws Fleur to the ground, not gently, and stands in front of her chanting something in what sounds like Roman — because, great, exorcism, that's going to work —

A golden-eagle-shaped daemon has grabbed Fleur's grackle. She cries out Brad's name again, helpless to reach him now, as the spectres around him quiver with some inhuman physical action (a radio ad flashes through Carlos's mind: when you think physical actions, think gulping!) — not physically tearing into him but clearly somehow feeding....

Digging his heels into the sandy dirt, Carlos stops moving.

The Boy Scouts holding Isaña keep right on going, past the edge of the lot and over the poorly-kept sidewalk. Even without watching them, Carlos is hyper-aware of the distance between him and his daemon, and grits his teeth a few seconds before the pain starts.

He can do this.

It hurts. It hurts like hell, but people have done it and survived. Lots of people. Josie. Cecil. Dana. There's no reason he can't too. And he has to get over there. Brad needs help — Carlos has responsibilities — that's the first thing a project chaplain has — even if it hurts — brave like Lyra — he has to —

A scream tears itself from his throat as he stumbles after Isaña once more, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. It's almost automatic, his body refusing to let him do this to himself. He can't stop running toward his daemon any more than he could eat something rancid and then stop himself from throwing up.

Maybe he's brave in other ways, but not this one.

The mad dash stops at the far side of the next street over, which has a nice, normal, well-kept sidewalk in front of a row of unremarkable houses. All three Scouts' daemons cluster around Isaña, effectively tethering Carlos to that point; there's no way he can get to her without pulling them out of the way, and he would never — it takes a special kind of monster to be willing to touch a child's daemon. Pulling off his glasses, he swipes away the tears and looks breathlessly back at the scene near the dog park walls.

Brad has stopped yelling. So has Mateo, now surrounded by spectres himself. There's nothing but the muffled flailing from the boys still out there, as well as panting from the ones dragging Fleur by the daemon, now halfway across the empty lot with no hooded spectres in pursuit...yet.

Earl Harlan still isn't looking at the scene, just arranging punch and cupcakes on the cheap folding table he's set up on the sidewalk.

"How can you just stand there?" demands Carlos, striding over. Earl is maybe twelve feet away from Isaña, so the edge of Carlos's range is too far away to properly get in Earl's face, but he does his best. "People are in danger! There are kids back there — kids you're supposed to be responsible for! What do you think you're doing, sending children off to face those things while you hide back here and make snacks?"

No response. No acknowledgment of Carlos's existence. Earl just fills another plastic cup.

"What's wrong with you?" yells Carlos.

Earl snaps around to face him — and whatever assumptions Carlos had about his casual disinterest are shattered. His eyes are blazing, muscles all over his body tense. "What's wrong with me?" he echoes, tightly-controlled anger humming under the words.

The control slips — his arm swings — Carlos flinches, not quick enough, and winds up drenched in the face with a cupful of fruit punch.

"What's wrong with me?" repeats Earl in furious disbelief, as Carlos wipes dripping hair out of his eyes. "I am not the one who can't follow simple directions! I am not the one who thinks his fancy experimental theology means he can get away with anything! I'm not the one who hears do not go near the dog park and takes it as some kind of challenge, and I am not the one turning around and accusing his rescuer of child endangerment because he can't stop for one minute and use his goddamn eyes!"

He breaks off, panting, chest heaving, one arm tensed from shoulder to fist in a way that says he's going to slug Carlos any second now.

It doesn't happen. Instead, some of the anger drains away, leaving the rest cut with despair as he drops his arms and says, "What does Cecil see in you?"

(Somewhere in the back of his mind, every interaction Carlos has ever had with Earl suddenly makes a thousand times more sense.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It takes nearly all the boys to lead Brad and Mateo away from the dog park. Not dragging them by the daemons, just pulling them forward by the hands, one slow step at a time.

Carlos has his arms around Fleur by this point, trying to be stable and comforting, though he feels about as close to hysterical panic as she looks. Earl is keeping the remaining kids busy by quizzing them on the augural meanings of birds, handing out mini-cupcakes for every right answer. Li Hua stands off to the side, taking in everything and saying nothing.

A tiny, curly-haired kid breaks away from the group inching towards them and runs to Earl's side. "Scoutmaster Harlan, Scoutmaster Harlan!" he says anxiously, daemon bouncing in the form of an over-excited fox. "Ramon got hurt!"

Earl is with him in an instant. "Hold that thought, guys," he orders the others, and stands to call across the road: "Ramon! Get over here!"

The boy who answers the call is probably the tallest of the group, dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail, daemon in the form of a grey squirrel. "I'm fine," he says sullenly, trudging up to the cars. "No big deal."

"You're shivering."

"Yeah, so what? I'm cold."

In the middle of a hot desert day, nobody buys it for a second. "A Scout is Trustworthy," says Earl, folding his arms.

Ramon cringes a little. "She can still change fine, look." He nudges his daemon, who becomes an ermine, a praying mantis, and an oriole in rapid succession before going squirrel again. "I still get the badge, right?"

"No. You knew the rules about spectre-based rescues. And before you ask, it doesn't count as an achievement for the Gambling With Your Life badge either." Earl pulls the shivering boy into a quick, fierce hug. "Now, you're going to get a drink and a cupcake, go sit on the curb until you feel better, and think very hard about what you've done."

"Hooded spectres only attack people after they've settled," realizes Carlos.

He thought he was speaking under his breath, but Earl catches it anyway. "And the penny drops! No wonder you got all those degrees, with quick thinking like that."

"Scoutmaster Harlan!" says Petey, the youngest of the boys who brought Isaña in, waving his hand in the air. "A Scout is Courteous, Scoutmaster Harlan."

Earl takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "You're absolutely right, Petey. Thank you. I was forgetting."

The redhead, meanwhile, is peering at Carlos with fresh curiosity. "Did you not know?"

Carlos swallows. "What else can you tell me about them?"

Some of the boys are too quiet, shy, or cautious to jump in, but the rest practically talk over each other in their eagerness to show off their knowledge. Hooded spectres can't see, or be seen by, people with unsettled daemons. Everyone who grows up in Night Vale takes that for granted. They're only allowed to feed within a certain distance of the area that is now the Dog Park, because of something that probably involves magic, and/or sacrifice. They have something to do with the Void. They can, in theory, be unmade by angels, although everybody knows angels don't exist. And besides, there are so many spectres around here that it would take more than Josie's rotating handful of tall friends to take care of them all.

In the middle of this recitation, the boys' daemons let his and Fleur's go, and Fleur chokes on a gasp and pulls out of Carlos's arms. "Brad!" she exclaims running to her advisee as her daemon soars onto her shoulder. "It's okay — you're okay now — come on, Brad, please...."

Brad stands perfectly still on the patch of asphalt the Scouts have tugged and pushed him onto. He doesn't speak. When Fleur stops in front of him and clasps his face in her hands, he looks at her, but only with total, blank disinterest.

His pocket is empty.

Carlos is on his knees before he consciously knows Isaña is running to him, ready to scoop her into his arms. Holding his daemon close, he approaches Mateo. "Hey there," he says weakly — in English, having switched mental tracks when Fleur started speaking in it. "You still with us?"

On some level he already knows it's pointless. There's no sign of Mateo's weasel daemon either. When Carlos waves a hand in front of his face, his eyes track it...then keep right on staring in the same direction after it drops. Poking or pushing at him gets no response other than the same blank look at the spot being poked or pushed. Physically he's fine. Mentally, emotionally, he's just...gone.

Fleur throws her arms around Brad's shoulders and starts sobbing into his chest.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Li Hua takes care of the cleanup; she has to, she's the only one functional. She arranges to have the Scouts retrieve the team's equipment, calls Night Vale General to pick up Brad and Mateo, and gets in touch with her fellow Li Hua to pass the news on.

Carlos doesn't remember getting back home. No esoteric Night Vale phenomenon to blame this time; he's just too sick with grief and guilt to pay attention. If he had only listened to warnings...if he had only asked someone, anyone, for details, instead of assuming they needed experimental theology to work it all out from the ground up....

And they were doing so well, too! Getting used to all the town's dangers, even the least-predictable ones. Navigating the impossible, draconian local government. Protecting and looking out for each other. Escaping horrible fates by the skin of their teeth, over and over again...only to get cocky and walk right into something that would literally eat them alive, when all they had to do to stay safe was to keep their distance.

Josie was right: his need to find out everything about everything is his downfall. Foolish, foolish Carlos.

The loss is too big for him to absorb all at once. He keeps losing track of it and then remembering all over again. Two of their own are, effectively, dead. One a spy, but a spy who ultimately sacrificed himself to save Fleur. The other...Brad's gone.

Fleur can't stop crying.

(She thinks it was her fault. Because it was her plan. But no, Carlos was the one who gave her the go-ahead to develop it in the first place, who approved it when it was done. A project chaplain is responsible. Whether she believes it or not, this is all on him.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It might be minutes or hours later when someone knocks on his open door. Carlos is lying in bed, shoes still on, chapel coat fanned out around him. He's been here a while.

"Hi," he says hoarsely, not looking up.

"Hey, boss," says Adriana in Spanish. "Henriette's in the other house with Fleur right now...she picked up a couple bottles of something she guarantees will make you forget which way is up for the next couple days. But, um. Depending on how you react to alcohol, you may or may not want to start on it right away."

"Uh-huh?"

"See, there's one of those mute albino City Council messenger children out on our front lawn. And, if I'm interpreting the really tiny message inked on its fingernails correctly...we've been summoned to a hearing to determine whether or not they're going to kick us all out of town. Starting in just over twenty minutes."

Chapter Text

As always, City Hall is shrouded in black velvet after dark, and the railings on the front steps are missing (as are several of the steps). The experimental theologians find a ground-level window and crawl through into a storage closet, one by one.

Mayoral aide Trish Hidge, the dark-haired Persian woman with the cowbird daemon who met a few of them on their first day in town, is waiting at the door of the closet. "It's about time!" she exclaims. "You're keeping the Mayor waiting."

She leads the whole group on a rapid walk through the marble corridors. Carlos first, wearing a formal chapel coat but otherwise woefully underdressed; some quick thinking and judicious use of wet wipes by Henriette is the only reason his face and hair aren't still sticky with dried fruit punch. Henriette now has an arm around Fleur, whose eyes are red and face swollen; her marmot daemon carries Fleur's grackle on his back.

Adriana walks alone, shell-shocked from the loss, jumping at shadows and holding her iguana daemon tight. Köhler is grim, his binturong hewing so close to his side that they keep nearly stepping on each other's feet. Li Hua and her double (whichever one is which) bring up the rear, quiet and calculating, wren daemons perched watchfully on their shoulders. Neither of them seem particularly grief-stricken themselves, but they can recognize a touchy situation and know better than to risk setting it off.

At the door to the City Council chamber, a masked security guard runs a metal-detector wand over each of them. It beeps shrilly in the vicinity of one Li Hua's shoulders; she unselfconsciously reveals the handgun in her concealed shoulder holster. "Nothing to worry about. Guns don't kill people."

The other Li Hua uses the same defense. Both are allowed through.

The chamber itself reminds Carlos of a TV courtroom, with the addition of a bloodstone circle in one corner, and fat candles mounted every few feet on the nearly-black paneling of the walls. The City Council itself sits at the head of the room behind a raised desk, eerily similar-looking dark-haired humans within a narrow band of skin tones, dressed in matching scarlet robes with assorted black-feathered birds perched on the shoulders. Facing them is a single table, empty except for a microphone.

From there to the back of the room it's all chairs...and they're packed. Familiar faces look over their shoulders and whisper to each other as the experimental theologians are led in. There are the Wallabys, with little Megan held in her father's arms. And there, Michael Sandero and his family, next to a couple of people Carlos recognizes from PTA meetings as local teachers. One seat is occupied by a small group of tarantulas. The Faceless Old Woman who lives in all of their homes has the bad luck to be sitting next to the Apache Tracker (ugh). There's Josie near the front, with three birds who are not her daemon perching on her shoulders or in her lap.

Almost everyone here has been helped by the experimental theologians at some point, Carlos realizes with a pang of hope. Earl Harlan might be here to testify about the team's rule-breaking, but directly behind him is Steve Carlsberg, who is certainly going to attest that they're model law-abiding residents (no matter how much he has to lie to do it).

In all the room, though, there's no sign of Cecil.

"Took you long enough," says the City Council in perfect unison, as Trish Hidge leads the team to what looks like a jury box, up against the right wall. "The Outsiders will be seated."

The experimental theologians fill two rows, with Trish taking a seat behind them, presumably to keep an eye on them from the back. No sooner have they all gotten settled than a woman in the front row stands up.

"The Council recognizes the Mayor," choruses the Council.

Mayor Pamela Winchell has olive skin, dark curls cut short against her head, and a charcoal suit that is clearly a more expensive version of the knockoff her aide is wearing. She carries a bloodstone purposefully in one hand. Pacing at her side is the largest feline daemon Carlos has ever seen, bigger even than Köhler's binturong: a caracal, red-furred and long-limbed, with black-tufted ears and glittering eyes.

"The Mayor does not tolerate disobedience," she says — in a voice that carries to all corners of the room. Either there's a mic on her lapel, or she's unnaturally good at projecting. "The Mayor does not tolerate visitors who insist on tempting fate. Fate has miserable willpower. The Mayor does not tolerate marchpane. The Mayor tolerates fire, and the scent of olives, and the scratching of ancient runes beneath the peeling wallpaper."

Isaña is almost completely rolled up into a ball. Carlos wraps both hands around her.

"The Mayor will hear from municipal employees first."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Municipal employees turns out to mean secret police. Humans and daemons in matching black balaclavas take the witness table two by two.

The most damning offenses are thinking about the dog park and going near the dog park. It turns out the only reason Carlos and Fleur and the others weren't arrested on the spot, to be taken straight to re-education, is that one of the officers on duty was a parent of a Boy Scout. Wanted her son to have this opportunity to earn his Defense Against Existential Terror badge.

(Carlos would go through re-education again in a heartbeat if that was the price of the Sheriff's secret police ordering them to retreat from the dog park right away, instead of hanging back to wait for the Scouts while the spectres gathered.)

A laundry list of smaller infractions follows. Köhler had a ballpoint pen confiscated at some point. Henriette was reported using a margarita glass. Recordings from the bugs in the van and the truck have picked up unqualified mentions of angels, implying their existence, from multiple experimental theologians — including some of the ones who are still alive and in town, no less.

One officer brings a more personal testimony to the table. His partner (he says, with obvious difficulty) was killed in the act of defending Carlos and friends from Magisterium agents. She had been (he adds, choking up) only a short eighteen years away from retirement.

"I don't remember this," whispers one of the Li Huas. (They understand enough Spanish to be following the proceedings. By this point, Fleur could probably keep up if she was in any shape to concentrate. Köhler may or may not be getting any of this.)

"Before your time," murmurs Henriette in reply.

Carlos doesn't remember either. Not directly. He learned in the wake of his Glow-Cloud-based memory-wipe that he had tried to sic the secret police on his Magisterium kidnappers, only to have them out-talk him before killing the officer on duty. Carlos Tongue-tied strikes again.

The next police witness isn't familiar, until she opens her mouth. Carlos wipes sweating palms on his lab coat, remembering the last time he heard that voice. I don't think it's taking, Chuck. Let's just pick it up tomorrow, okay?

Now she's explaining to the Council that the experimental theologians seem to be really hard to re-educate, sometimes to the point of requiring enhanced re-education techniques — at least hypothetically, because the secret police would never do anything like that for real, of course not, that isn't legal — but anyway, wouldn't it be safer for everyone to just pre-emptively throw them out of town?

Logically Carlos knows not everyone in the room is staring at him, but as the only extant team member who's been through re-education techniques of any kind, he has the sick feeling of being under far too many eyes. He wraps Isaña up in his chapel coat and tries to keep his face blank.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"And now, because our fair town is a democracy that values the voices of its people, we will hear from any...civilians...who want to weigh in," says Mayor Winchell. She's still standing in the front of the room, effectively making the City Council at their raised desk serve as her backdrop. A normal person would be getting tired by now. Winchell looks like she could do this forever (and woe betide anyone who tries to stop her).

"In recognition of her seniority, the Council recognizes Old Woman Josie," adds the Council.

Josie takes the short walk from her seat to the witness table even more slowly than usual, cane or no cane: as if to remind the Council that she isn't afraid to take as much of their time as she wants. She's wearing an outfit Carlos has never seen before, black silk that leaves her arms bare. On anyone else it would have looked like a cocktail dress, but she makes it look as official as Winchell's expensive suit. Three seabirds flap over to the table and wait patiently for her to catch up.

With a gracious smile in the direction of the team, Josie finally sits and leans into the mic. "The Outsiders are accused of...inconsistent compliance with Night Vale municipal rules, is that right?"

"The Outsiders are accused of inviting danger to our town," says Winchell shortly. "Through inconsistent compliance with the law, yes."

"Then the issue here is whether, on balance, they've caused more danger than they've prevented, or vice versa."

Winchell grits her teeth. "Yes, that has been the theme of the entire past hour."

"Only trying to be clear, Mayor," says Josie pleasantly. "You must be patient with me. I'm just a simple old woman, after all."

The Mayor's hands are clenched into fists...and Carlos realizes with a start that, in the hand not wrapped around the bloodstone, he sees actual blood. He knows from Cecil's broadcasts that mayoral press conferences can get violently emotional, but he's never been in the same room with Winchell digging her nails into her palms hard enough to break the skin. "Do you have anything relevant to add?" she demands.

"Why, yes," says Josie. "Yes, I should say we do."

From their adopted bird-forms, the angels unfurl.

In an instant the room is lit up with — how would Cecil describe it? — a bright black beam of light, making every surface and every angle stand out in such detail that Carlos's eyes water trying to absorb it. Gasps echo around the chamber; somebody in the audience sobs; even the City Council flinches away from the sight. Only Winchell and Josie herself are unmoved.

With infinite dignity the angels step down to stand on either side of Josie, wings outstretched. In the midst of the black light, they alone are brilliant, burnished gold. Space and dimension try and fail to fully constrain their forms.

"The Council will consider who was first above ground to see to the cleanup on Street Cleaning Day, while they were taking a sudden, unplanned vacation," intones Erika, in a deep, bell-like tone that rings against the room's walnut paneling.

"The Council will further consider who discovered the cause of the hazardous shrieking in Old Town Night Vale, and arranged to have the window sealed, while they were still placing the blame on non-existent windmills in Desert Bluffs," adds Erika, feathers fluttering in a breeze not from this world.

"The Council will recall who stayed in town to spread the warning to all its citizens of the encroaching pieces of void, long after they had punked out without so much as a word," puts in Erika.

Another Erika discreetly nudges him. "No, they won't," she whispers in a normal tone. "Hasn't happened yet."

"Oh," says Erika, and covers with an uncomfortable cough.

The third Erika jumps in quickly. "The Council will, however, definitely recall who sincerely if misguidedly sought to protect the most recent victims of the dog park, after they had sarcastically invited those poor souls in."

"Yes! Yes, they will," says the temporally-confused Erika, getting back into the inhumanly resonant voice with a sense of grim glee. "And the Council must remember who discovered the perilous drain of Dust out of Niton Canyon that threatened all of Night Vale and lands beyond, and arranged to have it sealed."

"Oh, certainly," says Erika fiercely. "After all, the whole problem was caused by the Council clumsily and incompetently tearing a window through to the world of the dead just to speak to original Pink Floyd front man Syd Barrett."

Winchell whirls around. "You did what?"

"We do not acknowledge them!" shrieks the City Council, huddling in their scarlet robes. "But get them!"

The secret police officers scattered around the room, whether on duty or here to give testimony, make a mad dash toward the angels. Josie rises quietly out of her chair on her cloud-pine cane, to hover near the ceiling. The eye-watering combination of impossible shades of light flickers, then fades; sputtering candles and humming fluorescents, not physics-defying bright blackness, illuminate the room. With their own holy light dimmed, the angels all but disappear.

Officers crash into each other, tumble over chairs, grab wildly at the empty spaces where they saw their quarry last. The Council yells and shrieks at them some more, with no success.

All of which reminds Carlos that his critical mistake today was more than defying City Council rules. He and his team and half the people he knows in this town ignore those rules on a regular basis. In the angels' case, they do it by existing at all.

No, Carlos's failure was in thinking he knew enough to decide which rules to abandon. Mixed in with the tangle of absurd and draconian regulations are plenty that exist for good reason, and he's never known Josie or Steve or Cecil to go near the dog park, any more than they dare to visit the library, or pick up trash marked with a red flag. After living here for barely ten months, maybe Carlos is Night Vale enough to confuse and unnerve his family, but that doesn't mean he's qualified to second-guess its lifelong (or, in Josie's case, human-lifetime-long) residents.

The secret police finally accept that they're getting nowhere and back off; even their balaclavas can't totally conceal the expressions of wounded dignity underneath. Mayor Winchell points one blood-dripping hand at Josie, still floating overhead. "The Mayor's judgment of the benefits of the Outsiders will be objective! The shameful incompetence of the City Council will not be used to make them look better by comparison!"

"You tell her!" hisses Trish Hidge, still seated behind Carlos and the others. "The Mayor is much too smart to be fooled by that kind of childish trick!"

"My friends and I wouldn't dream of it," says Josie pleasantly. "We just wanted to put the Outsiders' heroic actions in their proper context."

Calling them heroic seems like a stretch to Carlos. Half the time all they did was track down a problem and send the angels out to fix it. On the other hand...that isn't nothing, either. He and his team have done some real good here, not just as human beings, but as experimental theologians. And if Erika's prophecy, or vision, or backwards memory, or whatever-it-was is correct, they have more left to do.

(To say nothing of the benefits if some of their research pans out. A successful way to predict where and when portals will open could singlehandedly revolutionize safety in this town.)

"Do you have more testimony to offer?" demands Winchell. "Or are you just going to float there all day?"

"Just one more thing." Josie sinks back to her chair. "These nice young men and women are always coming around my little house with home-cooked meals, which I would miss very much if they were to leave. I'm pushing two hundred and twenty, you know. I can't get around like I used to."

With a growl of frustration Winchell waves for her to rejoin the audience, most of whom are still recovering from the angelic display. "Someone else better get up here quick. Who's next in order of seniority? Do we have any ridiculously wealthy people here? No? How about school board presidents? Zoo directors? Hospital administrators? PTA presidents? Scoutmasters?"

At that last one, Earl Harlan rises from his seat. "Present."

"Oh, praise the beams," mutters Winchell.

"The Council recognizes Scoutmaster Earl Harlan," adds the City Council, who are uniformly hiding behind their raised desk and peeking up over the edge.

Earl approaches the witness stand, his silver-furred beaver daemon ambling along at his side. He's still wearing the uniform, neckerchief and all, his expression carefully neutral.

That's when the door in the back of the room slams open.

"Stop the hearing!" shouts a voice that echoes off the walls, that sings down all of Carlos's nerves and makes him sit up straight like someone pulled taut a wire attached to his spine.

Cecil's here.

"Or, should I say, don't stop the hearing," continues Cecil. He's wearing a stunningly normal outfit — white collared shirt, dark slacks, a vest — even if Carlos would not have chosen a vest covered in quilted kittens for a serious legal occasion. The multicolored alethiometer tote bag is slung over his shoulder, and there's a new white streak in his hair, one of the locks hanging over his forehead. "Continue the hearing. Until I finish speaking. Then stop the hearing, because, quite frankly, what I have to say is going to make all other testimony superfluous." He glances at the witness stand. "No offense, Earl."

Carlos pulls his eyes away from Cecil long enough to catch a flash of emotion across Earl's face. Fondness, exasperation, longing. A mix Carlos recognizes mostly because he knows exactly what it's like, to have Cecil Palmero make you feel like that.

It's gone an instant later. Earl nods politely. "None taken."

They both stand awkwardly in place until the Council choruses, "The Council recognizes the Voice of Night Vale."

With a sigh of relief, Cecil makes his way to the front of the room. Winchell glowers at him. "Trying out a new hairstyle, I see."

"Things have been a bit stressful lately," says Cecil with a shrug. "Do you like it?"

"That is not how biology works," mutter both Li Huas at the same time.

"Whether I like it is irrelevant," says the Mayor. "Sit down and say your piece."

"Of course." Cecil sits, leaning on the tabletop and steepling his fingertips together. Like Winchell, he seems perfectly capable of projecting his voice around the room unaided, but he tilts his head into the mic anyway, maybe out of radio-professional instinct. "Mayor Winchell, distinguished members of the City Council: you cannot have these experimental theologians removed from Night Vale. I did some checking into things, and it turns out...they're the ones in the prophecy."

Carlos isn't the only one on the team who jumps.

...And judging by the murmur that goes around the room, the locals are all just as surprised as he is. Members of the City Council are turning to each other and whispering in confusion. The Mayor is less obvious about it, but she isn't exactly nodding in recognition, either. "What prophecy, Mr. Palmero?"

Cecil blinks. Clearly this is not how he expected his revelation to land. "What do you mean, what prophecy? How many prophecies about experimental theologians do you have on record?"

"Absolutely none," says Winchell. Her caracal daemon bares his teeth in Cecil's direction.

"Are you quite sure? Maybe you should go check."

"The Mayor knows all the prophecies by heart!" yells Trish Hidge. "Do not question the Mayor's knowledge!"

"Ah." Cecil bites his lip. "I see. Mayor Winchell, I'm sure you remember...Mom was always terrible about filing paperwork."

The Mayor looks unsurprised, but unmoved. "We don't have any standard Prophecy Witness ESP-32 forms on the topic, either. Even witnesses with a good-faith belief that the clairvoyant party had submitted full paperwork on their own prophecy would at least be required to file an ESP-32A Supplemental."

"As far as I know, I was the only witness," says Cecil sheepishly. "And the paperwork requirements only apply to Night Vale residents age twelve and up. Honestly, even if I had known there was nobody else to file anything, spelling 'experimental theologian' would have been a bit beyond me at seven. You really don't have any records at all?"

Winchell's nails are digging into her palm again. Blood drips onto the floor. "Conveniently, no."

"I'm not sure what you...."

"Don't be disingenuous. There's probably not so much as a cactus within a hundred miles of here that doesn't know you're in love with...." She nods toward the box with the experimental theologians, not looking at them. "The one with the hair."

Cecil doesn't deny it. Maybe he just doesn't want to turn this court into a soap opera by getting all confessional about his diminished feelings for Carlos, but it's so easy to hope that it means nothing's changed, no matter how awkward a patch they've gone through. "Oh, yes. Potential conflict of interest. I see." He dips a hand into his bag. "Well, if you doubt my integrity, you are welcome to double-check it."

The experimental theologians tense, even Li Hua and Li Hua, who by this point have a much better sense of how monumental an alethiometer is. "Can she read it too?" whispers Köhler in English, as Winchell sets aside her ceremonial bloodstone and takes the device from Cecil.

Trish Hidge may or may not recognize the words, but she knows skepticism when she hears it. "The Mayor has more than enough understanding to ask simple questions!" she hisses in Spanish.

Carlos himself probably has enough understanding to ask simple questions, even if he would be mostly guessing about how to read the answer. The Lute, the Horse, and the Candle could cover this one: Is the Voice of Night Vale being loyal and true when he talks about this prophecy?

And indeed, Winchell looks pretty confident as she turns the dials. If she works slowly, with none of Cecil's casual ease, it's probably only noticeable to the viewers who have spent as much time watching Cecil as Carlos has. At last she's picked her three symbols, and stares intently at the needle-fine fourth hand as it spins.

Whatever she gets out of the answer, it's enough. "All right, so this prophecy is real," she says, not handing the alethiometer back over. "Why don't you share the details?"

"Oh, I'm sure you've put it together already," says Cecil smoothly. "Experimental theologians will come to this town, and their presence here will be integral to avoiding something catastrophic. That's the relevant part."

"And the other parts?"

Cecil...fidgets. It's subtle, but Carlos has no doubt Winchell notices. "I did mention that I was seven when this happened. Who remembers everything from that age, right?"

"Spare me the prevaricating. If there's anything you weren't clear on, we both know you would have used the alethiometer to sort it out before you showed up here. What else is there?"

"Oh, you know...lots of general prophecy stuff," says Cecil, and now anyone with ears can tell that he's dodging the question. "Mounting attack on the Republic, etcetera, etcetera, must prevent apocalyptic catastrophe, blah blah blah experimental theologians come to Night Vale, yadda yadda horrible betrayal, na na na one girl walks to the ancient seat of —"

"Stop," orders Winchell. "What was that about 'horrible betrayal'?"

"I know, right? What is it with every prophecy having to throw in something like that? Honestly, I'm not even sure that was Mom's clairvoyance talking, it could have just been her being dramatic —"

"Who horribly betrays who?"

Cecil swallows.

The Mayor glares daggers at him.

Carlos is gripping Isaña so tightly his hands ache.

"One of them," says Cecil at last, gesturing at the experimental theologians. "Betrays Night Vale."

No.

A murmur of suspicion ripples through the audience as Carlos's mind races. Is Köhler planning to give up the alethiometer to the wider world after all? Will Li Hua and/or her double end up trading town safety to save their own necks? Surely not Adriana or Henriette, who care about Night Vale and its people almost as much as Carlos does. And gentle Fleur could never turn on anyone, even if she wanted to. Right?

"What if we just threw that person out of town?" suggests the City Council, back to speaking in unison. "And kept the rest of the experimental theologians around? That seems like a win-win situation."

"That really isn't how prophecy works," protests Cecil. "You can't dodge the parts that are inconvenient and still expect the rest of it to fall into place like it was supposed to."

"Deciding what to dodge and what not to dodge is a job for your elected officials." Winchell sets the alethiometer on the witness table in front of him. "Your job is to provide information. Look it up."

Making a face, Cecil uses his sleeve to wipe a smear of the Mayor's blood from the golden frame.

Carlos watches him turn the dials, heart clenched like a fist in his chest, trying to figure out how to deal with whatever answer Cecil turns up. If they have to keep the prophesied traitor around in order to prevent something apocalyptic, then he tentatively hopes the local government votes to let s/him stay. But maybe he and the others can keep an eye on this person. Catch the betrayal as early as possible. Prevent it from hurting too many people, from spilling out too far.

He's still reeling at the idea of being in a witch-prophecy in the first place, but on some level, it's comforting. Hard to get too anxious about your own judgment, even if it might fail you again in the future, when you know there's an element of predestination guiding it along....

"Carlos."

Snapping out of his thoughts, Carlos sits up straighter. "Yes?"

Cecil gazes distantly at the face of the alethiometer, voice deadened, not looking at him. "It's you, Carlos."

The meaning sinks in.

Carlos flashes through confusion, disbelief, anger. "It is not," he says testily. "You're reading it wrong."

"It can mean no one else," says Cecil softly. "Not the way it represents you to me."

"Then it's wrong. I would never. How can you say that?" It's like that first day of observation all over again, when Cecil cooed over how Carlos had wanted a panserbjørne daemon, except he's hardly going to be taken down a peg by Isaña reminding him of some long-forgotten plan to turn on Night Vale. "How can you even think...?"

He's on his feet before he knows it, one arm curled tightly around his daemon, free hand coming down on the wooden railing in front of him. A room full of friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and nobody else looks ready to stand up for him. Too shy, maybe. Or too intimidated to contradict their Voice.

Well, Carlos is not afraid of Cecil. "I wouldn't betray this town for anything. Horribly or non-horribly! I love this town! All the times it's tried to kill me, or at the very least scar me for life, you think I'd still be here if I didn't? You think it's just theological arrogance keeping me around? I love Night Vale, I love the people in it, I love —"

"Sit down, Dr. Perfecto," snaps Mayor Winchell.

"My name is Ramirez!" yells Carlos. "Stop calling me something I'm not just because you heard it from Cecil!"

His colleagues are pulling at his coat now, tugging at his arms. "Let it go, Carlos, please," whispers Henriette.

Dammit, Carlos is not ready to drop this. "Cecil, come on," he says, half accusation and half entreaty. "You know me better than that. You can't throw out everything else you know about me because of something your —" abusive lunatic of a — "mother said when you were a kid, you can't —"

"The imperfect experimental theologian will SIT DOWN," thunders the City Council.

It rattles the walls. Carlos falls back into his seat. Hands clamp down on his shoulders, Henriette from the row behind him and Köhler at his left, holding him in place.

"The Voice's testimony has been noted," declares Winchell. Her caracal daemon paces in circles behind her, long-limbed, tail lashing. "It will be taken into account when we make our decision. Do you have anything else to add?"

At last Cecil raises his face from the alethiometer. He still doesn't look at Carlos. "There is no decision to be made. The experimental theologians will stay."

"That is not your call to make."

"It is essential to protecting the future of the Republic."

"I am not the Mayor of the goddamn Republic, Palmero!" snaps Winchell, pounding one bloody fist on the tabletop in front of him. "I am the Mayor of Night Vale, and I will not be talked out of doing what is best for this town! Do you have anything else relevant to add here?"

A long silence. Carlos would swear he can hear the nearest candle flickering.

"That's what I thought." Winchell steps back, wiping off her hands. Her expensive suit is still perfectly clean when she pulls them away. "The Council and the Mayor will retire to deliberate —"

"You know," says Cecil, "I've always thought Hiram McDaniels would make an excellent mayor."

His voice is low, but with the mic, it carries.

"Not this again!" shrieks Winchell. "Mayors do not just happen! There is paperwork! There are eligibility requirements! There isn't even another election for two and a half years!"

"Not necessarily."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, I'm just saying, there could be an election closer to the present," says Cecil, soft and innocuous. "For instance...a town petition, with enough signatures plus the requisite blood and hair samples, could easily trigger a recall election."

Winchell has gone rigid. She could be a statue, if not for the lashing of her daemon's tail.

"Or you could, for reasons of your own, voluntarily step down from your position," continues Cecil. "Or perhaps, if you were to be...indisposed, somehow...then your deputy might choose to hold elections, for reasons of his own."

He's threatening her. Sitting in an official courtroom, the whole City Council laid out in front of him, a wide mix of civilians and police watching from behind, and Cecil is casually threatening the Mayor.

But not for Carlos's sake, this time. He totally buys this idea that Carlos is going to throw Night Vale under the bus, and keeping him around is just a necessary sacrifice for the sake of...the Republic, whatever that may be. (It doesn't sound like Cecil is talking about something so pedestrian as all of Hispania Nova.)

Carlos has never been so furious with anyone in his life.

"What are you doing, Palmero?" asks Winchell, in a steely, dangerous voice.

Cecil's eyes widen, the picture of innocence. "Why, Madam Mayor, I'm simply relating some of the details of local municipal procedure. As all good citizens should be familiar with."

"The Voice's civic responsibility is noted," says the Council, over the sound of Winchell audibly grinding her teeth. "The Council and the Mayor will retire to deliberate now."

A white puff of smoke surrounds all fourteen figures. When it begins to dissipate, there's not so much as a bird-daemon feather or a drop of blood to be seen. It smells faintly of maple.

"I can do that too," mutters Trish Hidge. "I just try not to use any Mayoral powers too much, out of respect for the Mayor."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They don't get thrown out of town.

Everyone else on the team breathes a sigh of relief. Not Carlos, who is still so mad he can barely see straight. Cecil still isn't looking at him. Good, because Carlos doesn't want to look at Cecil.

"Henriette, from now on, you're in charge," he says instead. "I'm not leaving, I'm just — recusing myself from making any more decisions."

"We all still trust you," protests Henriette. Adriana nods, as do the Li Huas, although maybe they're just trying to stay in his good graces. Köhler, who has dealt with alethiometers a lot longer than he's dealt with Carlos, says nothing. Fleur just looks like she's trying not to cry.

"Doesn't mean everyone in town will," says Carlos. "We have to do what we can to keep people from losing confidence in us. Besides...prophecies aside, considering everything else that's happened today...my judgment is obviously not in good working order right now."

He knows Henriette understands his work well enough that she can direct him to keep it up. And even if he ends up doing all the same research he would have anyway, there's no way it can lead to some kind of accidental betrayal if the person ultimately responsible is a prophesied non-traitor. He has no reason to think he'll regret handing over authority to her.

As long as she doesn't try to make him talk to Cecil.

Chapter Text

In the bloodstone circle room of the larger rental, Henriette pours a tall glass of something bubbly and electrum-colored for each of them: herself, Köhler, Fleur, Adriana, and Carlos. It seems like the right room to do something ceremonial in. Even if they're making up the ceremony as they go along.

Carlos lights a candle and puts it in the center of the bloodstone circle. Köhler adds a drafting compass, something he got as an award for distinguished service to Heidelberg, matching the alethiometer's symbol for experimental theology. Fleur sets down a printed photogram of Brad with the Glow Cloud and its child, all of them bright gold.

They take turns sharing memories about Brad.

A few drinks in, even the most stoic of them are a little weepy — but in a good way, Carlos thinks. A way that means they're doing something difficult but right. And it's a fitting mirror to what Erika said should come after a person's death. Tell their stories.

After Adriana makes it through a funny story about saving Brad from ordering rust-flavored fro-yo at the Pinkberry, Carlos switches tones and talks about Brad coming with him when they went after Dotan, at the edge of Niton Canyon. How Brad helped in trying to talk Dotan back from the edge, and held him still as gently as possible while Carlos treated the bite marks left by Hiram McDaniels catching him.

He tries not to look at Fleur more than usual during this, and he doesn't say so don't you dare go throwing yourself off a cliff over this, because that's the last thing Brad would have wanted. But he's thinking it.

Isaña sniffles in his arms. Köhler passes them the tissues.

Fleur lets them know that Brad's getting his Ph.D. posthumously. She spoke to the dean's office, testifying that her advisee had completed all the requirements, and at this point all the legal hoops have officially been jumped through.

It's the kind of news that calls for a toast, so they have one. Henriette tops up their drinks.

With uncharacteristic deference, Köhler asks if he might add a Mateo story. The other three team members who were not assassination targets look to Carlos, who nods permission. He has mixed feelings about it, but ultimately he could have sent Mateo home, and decided to keep him on the team instead — not to punish him, but to benefit from his contributions. It wouldn't be right to let those go unacknowledged.

So Köhler talks about Mateo coming to a breakthrough on that cross-world cellular degeneration problem. Then it turns out Fleur has a memory about Mateo helping her deal with a tricky translation issue, and Henriette has a funny story about his reaction to their lawn whistling the first time he tried to cut it.

Fleur, whose life he saved at the end, says she hopes he gets the martyr's palm. Carlos says that if she can figure out what office you call to recommend posthumous awards for secret Magisterium agents, he's happy to put in a good word.

Then, since this is clearly becoming a Brad-and-more-than-Brad type of memorial service anyway, he asks if he can talk about Carlo Raimondi.

(By now, Adriana knows as much as the rest of them do about what happened to the Desert Bluffs team. It's not like it's any harder to deal with, at this point, than what the Night Vale team has been through.)

There are a million different stories about the two Rusakov particle physicists dealing with people mixing them up. Most are pedestrian, but some are genuinely kind of funny...which turns out to mean that, when you're this plastered, they are hysterical. Carlos has his audience in stitches with the one about the student who spent half a semester accidentally going to Raimondi's advanced seminar instead of Carlos's intro class. Henriette actually falls over laughing — and she was sitting down.

None of them knew the rest of the control team well, but between them, the four New Dane theologians manage to dredge up something to say about all five theologians lost in Desert Bluffs. Even Köhler, who's spent most of his working life on a different continent from the rest, remembers the portal specialist giving an engaging presentation during a conference in Vienna.

Carlos has no idea how long they ultimately spend in there, talking, remembering, honoring. He does know that the candle is a waxy puddle in its holder by the time they blow it out.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

When Adriana starts packing her bags, Carlos isn't surprised. He just asks what kind of paperwork she'll need from him to leave the project early.

It gets him a strange look.

Oh, right. The grad students were never scheduled to stay for more than two semesters, and it's mid-April. She's headed for Harvard to defend this world's most well-researched thesis on interdimensional portals and their mechanics: the first and, so far, only one of the team who's leaving exactly when planned.

The rest of the team develops the footage from Brad's camera. It goes glitchy when the spectres approach, but when they drift away you can clearly see Mateo's body, daemonless, surrounded by no more Dust than the average tree.

After they watch it, Fleur locks herself in her room for the next twelve hours.

Li Hua has a bunch of Boy Scouts (along with Earl Harlan, whom Carlos carefully avoids) over to the chapel to help them dissect some animals. Apparently, helping them to work on their Internal Organs badge is what she offered in return for the boys retrieving the team's equipment from next to the dog park in the first place.

Night Vale General unexpectedly solves the problem of how on earth they're going to treat Brad and Mateo's soulless-but-still-breathing bodies. Carlos fields a horrified call from Brad's next-of-kin (which turns out to be an aunt and uncle) in which he explains that what they heard from Brad's doctor was an unfortunate translation mistake — that she was trying to tell them Brad was a successful organ donor, not whatever outlandish things they imagined when they heard the phrase "ritual sacrifice."

People don't smile at Carlos on the street any more. The ones he had sort-of gotten to know, like much of the wait staff at Big Rico's, don't shun him, but they're a little more reserved when he comes in. A little less pleased to see him.

He doesn't listen to NVCR. If the radio turns itself on, which it frequently does, he switches to WZZZ, the local numbers station.

Nobody tries to make him talk to Cecil.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

It's time to start narrowing down applications for new team members, to join the project in the fall semester. Sure enough, as predicted, their grant has four open spaces. Five, if you count Li Hua and her double as a single person.

(Those two aren't having any trouble coping in Night Vale, but Carlos has no idea how they're planning to handle all the other legal/identity issues they'll run into when the project ends.)

Carlos forwards all the project applications to an email of Henriette's, though she still asks for his input on what skill sets to look for, and whether certain parts of résumés should be dealbreakers. At last, one morning in the chapel, she comes into Carlos's office, where he's making very important progress on his timepiece research project. "I think it's almost time to move forward with phone interviews."

"Sounds great," says Carlos, putting down the hollow bangle-watch Cecil gave him for Christmas, which he was examining for valid theological reasons. "Are you planning to do them, or did you want to delegate?"

"Actually...I was planning to swing by the radio station first. Double-check that there aren't any new spies or assassins in the group we end up calling."

"Ah."

"Did you, um...." Henriette bites her lip. "Did you want to be...involved, at all, in that?"

"I think you can figure out how to ask Cecil questions without my help," says Carlos.

"I see."

"Not that I'm making the decision for you," adds Carlos. On the floor beside him, Isaña leans against his foot. "Of course if you think I should come along, you have the authority to say so."

"Of course," says Henriette. "Well. You have fun with those watches. I'll see you this afternoon."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Over the course of a few days, a dense, pine-heavy forest grows out of the desert just to the east of Night Vale.

It seems like perfectly run-of-the-mill local weirdness, so when Carlos sees the latest schedule projected on the screen in the front of the ordinater room, he doesn't understand why Henriette is blocking out so much time to study it. "We study theology, not plants," he complains.

Li Hua and Li Hua look at each other, then at Henriette. "Is he serious?" asks the one on the right.

"Unfortunately," says Henriette's marmot daemon. "We're pretty sure that during his formative years, a botanist beat him up and stole his lunch money."

"There's nothing wrong with botanists," grumbles Carlos. Why are they acting like he must have some irrational reason for this? He is being perfectly rational. "I will have you know I once enjoyed a very pleasant makeout session with a botanist. That doesn't change how I feel about botany."

Henriette looks at him with interest. "You made out with a botanist? When was this? Who was it?"

"Oh, a while back," says Carlos vaguely. "And, um, his name was Joseph. Or possibly he was Jeffrey. I kept getting those guys mixed up."

Any reaction from the rest of the team is interrupted by a great snapping-of-branches sound outside, followed by a scuffle and an uncomfortable thud. The Li Hua on the left rolls her chair over to look out the nearest window. "Congratulations, Carlos," she reports. "You just blew our local secret-police observer's mind so much that he fell right out of his tree."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos retracts some of his objections when it turns out the Whispering Forest is debatably-sapient, and at least partly made of people.

Three first responders, a couple of hikers, and one of Cecil's interns are already half-tree by the time the experimental theologians get close. Larry Leroy, out on the edge of town, agrees to talk to them about how he avoided the sweet flattery and tempting comfort that the forest offered. Or rather, he agrees to talk to everyone but Carlos.

That's all right. Carlos can wait in the car. He even keeps the keys, so he can put the radio on — tuned to WZZZ, of course.

"Three. Eighteen. Eleven. Forty-six. Twenty-nine. Sixty," reads the monotone woman's voice, pausing for a series of chimes.

"We don't mind," says Isaña out loud. "We don't, right? It's not like we even knew Larry Leroy."

"Sixty-two. Five. Fifty-seven. Thirty-four. Twenty-one."

"That's true," says Carlos.

"We only really know who he is because he calls Cecil in with tips all the time. If he has to choose, of course he's going to trust Cecil over us."

"Fifty-eight. Duì. One. Qián. Forty-eight. Shēng. Twenty-three. Bō. Sixty-four. Wèi jì." (Chimes.)

"Well, sure. It isn't...." Carlos trails off. Something's happening. The announcer....

"Twenty-five. Wú wàng. Thirty-six. Míng yí. Forty-four. Gòu. Nineteen. Lín." (More chimes.)

"Record it!" exclaims Isaña. Carlos is already fumbling for his phone.

"Three. Zhūn. Sixty-two. Xiǎo guò. Fifty-six. Lǚ. Thirty-seven. Jiā rén. Sixty-four. Wèi jì...."

No chimes. The Voice of WZZZ trails off. Carlos finally finds his record function and holds it up to the car speakers. Static....

"Hello?" asks the no-longer-monotone woman's voice.

Where does this station broadcast from? Does anybody even know?

"Hello?" repeats this Voice. "Is anyone here?"

Before she can stay more, the static kicks back in.

Carlos listens diligently for the next ten minutes (according to his phone clock, however reliable that is). No more voice, no more strange syllables in a language he doesn't recognize, not even the old familiar numbers-and-chimes. He's still holding his phone against the speaker when the other experimental theologians come back out of Larry Leroy's.

"Apparently the forest's compliments can't win you over if you have a compelling reason not to stay there," says Henriette. "For a loose definition of 'compelling'. In Larry's case, all it took was the desire to watch Top Chef."

"Are you recording something?" adds one of the Li Huas.

"Trying to," says Carlos. "WZZZ was doing something strange for a while."

No sooner has he says it then the radio chimes, and the voice starts up again, monotone: "Seventeen. Thirty-nine. Forty-nine. Two...."

Carlos sighs and switches off his recording. "Never mind. Does anyone else think this would be an ideal time to test our new harness-and-pulley system?" They finally have a setup that should be able to let one team member approach a dangerous situation, with the others ready to yank them out again if they get too mesmerized to walk away themselves.

"I was thinking the same," says Köhler. "I am willing to volunteer to approach."

"No offense," says the other Li Hua, "but I think we're all safer if you're the one doing the pulling, instead of the one being pulled."

"You do realize," says Henriette, "that even if the rest of us were the most fragile, delicate creatures ever to do theology, we could always use the truck."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Köhler and his binturong daemon get a wide set of biological samples, neatly labeled by apparent species, approximate size, and, in the case of those trees that are still visibly people, how far gone they are. He returns of his own volition, no full-team winching operation required.

Carlos helps Fleur get photos and video, both of them a safe distance out past the forest's edge. Not that Carlos is worried for himself — but Fleur, well.

She's very quiet since the memorial. Not in constant tears any more, but not exactly happy, either.

Developed with the Asriel emulsion, the photograms seem to indicate that the trees are all fully conscious, the equals of adult humans with settled daemons. Or possibly a single adult human, depending on whether they form a single linked mind.

Carlos doesn't have a lot of time to think about it. Köhler pulls Fleur away to discuss the Rusakov ratings of the samples he took, while Henriette co-opts Carlos to help with a project of her own. It involves dismantling part of one of their early Rusakov meters, and hybridizing it with one of their Rutherford counters. They talk about the underlying physics of what she's trying to do (half of which they're making up as they go along) while Henriette shows Carlos where to solder.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

He wakes with a jolt, breathing hard, soaked in sweat.

Honestly, he should be used to nightmares about team members dying by this point. Even if they've gotten worse since the Sandstorm, now that his brain has a bonanza of gory new firsthand memories to work with. The catch with this one is that it also featured Cecil's voice, disembodied and reciting a long list of monotone numbers, and Carlos was absolutely certain that he could fix everything if only he was smart enough to figure out what they meant.

Isaña presses herself against Carlos's heartbeat, breathing hard. Carlos wraps his body around hers.

"Apparently," he whispers, once he feels up to it, "our subconscious isn't buying the whole 'things will be fine, possibly even better-off, if you stop compulsively trying to know everything about everything' idea."

"Night Vale has managed to survive as an incorporated township for over two hundred years without our help," recites Isaña.

Carlos grimaces in the darkness. She's quoting Cecil. After everything that's happened, he doesn't want to start dwelling on all the things Cecil has said.

Instead, he sits up and fumbles for his bedside lamp. "Let's do something."

His daemon leans on his leg. "Like what?"

"I don't know. Something research-y but not related to anything. Watch a documentary about choir music on Netflix. Read all the Wikipedia articles we can find on the biology of deep-sea fish. Call up the Sheriff's secret police and insist on hearing all the details of local public transit laws."

Isaña giggles. "Maybe not that last one. We want to still be here in the morning, or we'll scare the others."

"So, no late-night visits to the library, then."

"Well...maybe if they have really good books on...oh, I don't know, Olympic gymnastics."

"Probably safer to go for a bloodstone circle vision about Olympic gymnastics."

They end up wandering over to the bloodstone circle room, with Carlos taking a brief detour to get a drink of water and co-opt some of the bobby pins Adriana left behind. (His hair isn't long enough to tie back, but it's completely in his face these days if he doesn't attend to it. Silly that he hasn't gotten it cut. He will get it cut. At some point. Soonish. Eventually.) The cushion is back in the center of the circle. Old and worn as it is, it's pretty comfortable to kneel on.

Carlos cups a half-rolled Isaña in both hands. "Listen, I have another idea. How about if we go for visions of a nice vacation spot? I'm thinking the south of Italy."

"Rolling green hills," says his daemon dreamily. "Beautiful blue water."

"Folded mountains. Covered in trees that are naturally supposed to be there."

"Picturesque little villas. Thousand-year-old stone castles."

Smiling, Carlos lets his eyes fall closed. This doesn't seriously have any chance of going anywhere...so he has nothing to lose by letting himself slip into that relaxed, open state of mind he was in the first and only time he had a vision (for all the good it did, given that he couldn't remember a minute of it afterward).

He thinks about a candle flame, quiet and steady in its glow. He thinks about the Rusakov particles gathered around him right now, invisibly golden, swirling along currents and eddies in the air. He thinks about Lyra Belacqua, and hopes that in life his idol once got to sit in a real warm green field overlooking clear blue water, and share a knowing smile with the face beside her, and take his hand —

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

— the grass is lush and full of white flowers, the hillside is dotted with the orange tiled rooftops of tiny houses, and the folded coast juts in mountainous spurs out into an ocean so perfectly turquoise and blue.

"Best view in the world, isn't it?" says a familiar voice.

They're sitting on a checkered picnic blanket in a sun-drenched slice of hillside meadow: Carlos still kneeling with Isaña on one side, and Raimondi on the other, stretching his legs across the grass, his hyena daemon's head pillowed on his thigh.

"What—?" stammers Carlos. "How...?"

"Hey, don't ask me," says Raimondi, holding up his hands. Like Carlos, he's wearing a chapel coat over casual clothes. "You're the one who got the town with the cool stuff, remember? Maybe I'm not even here. Maybe this is a dream, and I'm just a figment of your guilt-ridden imagination."

With a sigh, Carlos eases out of the kneeling position and lets himself stretch. "If it's a dream, I'll take it."

"Damn right you will. Just look at those gorgeous cliffs."

It sure is a lot more vivid than the sketchily-drawn scenery Carlos's dreams usually have. "Is this...I mean, did you grow up here, or something?"

"You kidding? I grew up in Maine. Spent my honeymoon here, though. Didn't manage to hang on to the wife, but the memories, oh, man, I'm keeping those forever."

A couple of tiny white boats speed across the distant waves. Carlos gazes at the streaks of foam they trail, trying to remember if he already knew this about Raimondi, or if it's something he can use later to double-check if the whole thing is prophetic. No, wait, he does remember Raimondi and his wife splitting up. The dean sent the wrong one of them a very nice Condolences On Your Divorce card.

"Real good of you to bring me out here," adds Raimondi with unusual sincerity, scratching behind his daemon's ears.

Carlos shrugs awkwardly. "Consider it an apology. The last place I brought you didn't turn out so well."

"You can say that again."

It would be really nice to know if this is real right about now. Because that stung, but it's not like Carlos can admonish the genuine ghost of Raimondi to be more forgiving about getting him all-but-killed.

"Oh, come on, Ramirez, lighten up!" exclaims Raimondi, seeing his hesitation. "I'm a grown man, I decided to go to Desert Bluffs all on my own, and you didn't know what I was going to run into any more than I did. Just because you got lucky enough to survive, it doesn't make you responsible. Don't be such a drama queen."

There's a new person sitting between them now. Short dark hair, pale yellow dress shirt, expensive shoes. The newcomer is turned towards Raimondi, so Carlos can't see his face, and his daemon is nowhere to be seen...but from the back, he looks very much like Cecil.

"Besides, it's not like it was a total loss." Raimondi winks. "I mean, I got to meet some really nice people, you know?"

The un-Cecil leans toward him. Sunlight glints off the blade of a serrated kitchen knife, clasped in his three-fingered left hand.

"Raimondi, run!" cries Isaña. Carlos wants to lunge at the stranger, to pin the un-Cecil (Kevin, it must be Kevin) and disarm him, but the dream and/or vision won't let him move.

"No, but seriously, this is important," says Raimondi, leaning around to meet Carlos's eye over the stranger's shoulder. He leans forward too, so the two men are a foot away from embracing. "I mean, it's not the end of the world if you forget it...probably...but just try to stay on the ball, will you?"

Kevin puts one arm around him, and, with the other, plunges the knife into his chest.

Blood pours out of him, soaking his shirt, spurting across Kevin's hand and arm. Raimondi clings viselike to Kevin's shoulders for some semblance of stability as his torso jerks and spasms. "He's nice," he pants, face ashen. "Total sweetheart. This isn't him, any more than I'm...chirping about productivity while you're trying to tell me you're banging the Night Vale radio guy, or whatever the hell that was about. Are you banging that guy? Have you been queer this whole time?"

"No to the first, yes to the second, stop quizzing me about my sex life while you're bleeding to death!" yells Carlos.

He's still struggling, panicking, helpless to make his body respond. There's blood in Raimondi's hair again. A cloud falls over the sun, leaving all the scenery's glorious colors greyed-out.

"Whole damn thing's probably, what's-it, metaphorical anyway," gasps Raimondi. "Can't say I get it, but hey — not gonna judge — if it makes you happy, let your freak flag fly, baby —"

Dark red spatters soak into the picnic blanket. Carlos feels sick. Helpless. Despairing. Also, profoundly aggravated. "There is nothing inherently freaky about —"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"— nah' freak," slurs Carlos, disoriented and sleep-muzzy. "Ver' rude...."

He blinks. They're still in the bloodstone circle room. He's got a crick in his neck, and his calves are numb from however long he's been sitting on them. Keith Köhler and Rozarilde are crouching in front of him and Isaña.

"Um," says Carlos.

"Was that a vision, or were you simply dreaming?" asks Köhler.

Carlos shakes his head, rubbing his eyes. He isn't wearing his glasses. He isn't wearing much, frankly — just an undershirt and pajama pants, because he was fully expecting to get up after five minutes and walk straight back to bed. "I...have no idea. It isn't morning, is it?"

"The sun has not risen," says Köhler. The eminent elder theologian is, of course, fully dressed. Carlos wonders if the man even owns pajamas. "However, in spite of the hour, Fleur has gone missing."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They don't need to quiz the secret police on Fleur's whereabouts. She left a note.

Carlos shares as much of the vision/dream as he can remember (skimming over the details of the stabbing, and leaving out how obnoxious his mental image of Raimondi is even when he's trying to be supportive) as he, Henriette, and Köhler drive out to the Whispering Forest.

It's quiet and peaceful in the pre-dawn chill, the moss and leaves dewy, the woods dark and deep. Tall lichen-covered trunks with branches high above their heads are interspersed with pines, boughs heavy and sagging from the weight of so many bristling needles.

Intern Richard is still visible close to the edge, just a short tree whose branches have oddly human-arm-like proportions. When the light falls on it just right, the knotted bark where his face used to be casts the shadows of a face with a peaceful, beatific smile. Other people at various stages of treeification are scattered around him, but there's no sign of Fleur. Which means if she's here, she's deeper than their harness-and-rope setup can reach.

"I shall go and find her," says Köhler quietly. "We know already that it is safe for me."

"True," says Henriette, without malice, "but we want to encourage her to come back."

A silence.

"I can go," says Carlos. He's standing on the opposite side of the car from the other two, Isaña in the crook of his arm. They make a point of looking at their colleagues, not the trees.

"You're sure?" asks Henriette. "Because, Carlos, if you're wrong...."

"Send Köhler with me, if you're worried. I'm sure he and Rozarilde can drag us back here if they have to," says Carlos. "But think about it...the Forest's modus operandi is to shower you with compliments, and tell you that it loves you at first sight. That's not a behavior pattern that's going to win any points with me right now."

Henriette nods. "Understood. Carlos: go. Köhler: follow him. The minute anybody starts looking like he wants to stay in there, you abort the operation and get everyone out as soon as possible."

Neither man asks Henriette why she isn't volunteering herself. They just go, walking past the point where sand gives way to grass and moss, into the shadow of the trees.

Carlos grew up in a temperate climate much like this one, and it's soothing, the way the earth gives under his feet: nothing like the sun-baked clay or heaping sand the desert usually offers. Armadillos are desert animals, so Isaña doesn't ask to be let down so she can walk; but binturongs are native to forests, and Rozarilde has shed a certain amount of stiffness that Carlos had assumed was just her default state.

A small voice of indeterminate gender carries like wind through the branches, saying something in German. Köhler replies gruffly, his expression unchanging.

A similar voice (or perhaps the same voice using a different pitch) speaks in (or switches to) Spanish. "Your hair is so well-groomed this morning, Carlos. The tousled look is good on you."

Carlos makes the effort to reply in English. "So I've been told. Would you mind using English, please? Easier for all of us to understand."

"Oh, yes, yes, of course," whispers the voice (or perhaps a third voice), this time (or this one) in English. "You're so conscientious, Carlos! Does this mean you want to talk to us? Because we would love to talk to you. We could talk with you all day."

"I'm looking for a friend of mine, actually," says Carlos, as politely as he can. "Her name is Fleur. About this tall, dark skin, hair in a lot of braids. Have you seen her?"

"Oh, is she a friend of yours? She's so pretty!" coos the English voice. "And she knows so many things. You look like you know things too. Do you want to study together? Could you want to study us? We love you so much, Carlos. Stay with us and study us!"

Carlos swallows. This place sure does have his number. "Right now, I want to find Fleur. Which way is she?"

The voices of the Forest sigh. "To your right," whispers one. "As the water flows."

"Downhill," translates Köhler.

For some reason it comforts Carlos, this indication that it really is mind-reading hypnotic trees talking to them, and not some other mind-reading hypnotic force masquerading as trees. He and Köhler swing about fifty degrees right, which takes them down a gentle slope. The Whispering Forest breathes softly around them as they go. "You look so distinguished, Keith. How do you get your daemon's fur to look so sleek? And we love how soothing your voice is. Come relax with us for a while! You deserve it."

Köhler's binturong daemon climbs the nearest tree, jumping from its branches to the next, moving like a blue-black shadow through the dawn-greyed foliage. "Are you here, Fleur? Can you hear us?"

"She's relaxing here. She belongs here," whispers the forest. "We love her, and she loves us. To your left, now."

And a too-familiar whisper adds, "Hello, Carlos. Hello, Köhler."

Carlos's breath stutters in his chest.

He spots Fleur only by her clothes, which the forest isn't changing but growing around, like a tree planted too close to a chain-link fence. She's leaning sideways against a massive trunk, right arm and part of her face completely subsumed into the bark, her skin almost entirely covered with cracked grey-brown patches. Her braids are a mass of tiny hanging vines; her grackle daemon perches on her shoulder, welded to her body as surely as she is to the tree's, tail and one wing entirely replaced with a spray of pine needles.

She can't turn her head, so Carlos steps into the line of sight of her one remaining eye, Köhler at his heels. "Fleur! Hang in there — if you fight it, we might still be able to reverse this —"

In a singsong voice, Fleur chants, "That will never be. / Who can impress the forest, bid the tree / Unfix his earth-bound root?"

"Is she lucid?" whispers Köhler. "The mental alteration of the Forest — the effects on the brain, we do not know —"

"Lucid," says Fleur softly. "Lucid enough, at least. Not fighting it. This is what I want. Je n'étais jamais une fleur du désert, non, au fond j'étais toujours une fleur des bois."

Carlos's French is not good, but between the context and his Spanish he can back-translate. Ella no es una flor del desierto, es una flor del bosque. "We could send you home," he says, though it's probably hopeless and he knows it. "Get out of Night Vale, out of Hispania Nova, back to the Northeast. Find a nice quiet teaching position at a rural campus with all the trees you could ask for."

"Not trees like these," says Fleur. Switching to Spanish, she quotes Cecil in a fair imitation of his cadence: "Dear listeners, here is a list of things. Trees that see."

"It is...never easy, to lose a young colleague," adds Köhler, his English a touch more halting than usual. "Especially one that you have mentored. But you would not be alone in your difficulty. This is not the only place that can understand you."

Fleur blinks slowly at him. Or maybe winks. With one eye submerged in wood, there's no telling the difference. "And you know so much about understanding me, Doctor."

Köhler bows his head. His binturong daemon swings down from a tree and rises up on her hind legs beside him, so he can run a hand gently through her fur.

And then all of a sudden he's speaking in verse, the rigid meter freeing him up to use the most genuinely humble tone Carlos has ever heard from him: "I can dimly comprehend it, — that I might have been more kind, / Might have cherished you more wisely, as the one you leave behind."

A slow smile transforms Fleur's woody face.

This is all wrong, Carlos thinks. It never should have ended up like this. Köhler should have gotten over his prejudices years before coming to Night Vale, and he and Fleur should have bonded over poetry to form an unlikely but unshakeable friendship, and one day many decades from now Fleur should have been reciting Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light at his funeral — with Brad somewhere in the audience, not even pretending not to cry.

"We see so much," whispers Fleur. "The trees and I. They don't read your mind, that isn't how they know what you want to hear — all they do is see it. Your feelings. Your intentions. The paths on which your consciousness travels."

Köhler takes a half-step closer to her. "The flow of Rusakov particles?"

"So clearly," agrees Fleur. "So much more clearly than we ever did. I see a little of it already. O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books / And in their barks my thoughts I'll character / That every eye which in this forest looks / Shall see thy virtue witness'd every where."

When she giggles, it rustles the branches.

"Carlos, you're so glittery."

Carlos swallows hard, Isaña shaking in his arms. They don't fully understand what Fleur is becoming a part of, but maybe, maybe this terrible and beautiful transformation really was a lucid choice she made. Maybe they're losing her, but she herself won't be lost.

"What, now, Carlos, are you weeping? You should save your eyes for sight; / You will need them, mine observer, yet for many another night. / And remember, "Patience, Patience," is the watchword of a sage, / Not to-day nor yet to-morrow can complete a perfect age."

"Okay." Carlos hastily wipes his eyes with the sleeve of his chapel coat, then lays his hand over Fleur's left hand — which is still mostly hand-shaped, even as a detailed branchy growth resting against the bark. "Okay. I — I'll keep it in mind."

"Tell Henriette she was wonderful, and she did nothing wrong, and she doesn't need to worry because I'm happy here," breathes Fleur. "Tell Li Hua and Li Hua...they can go through my closet and take what they want."

"I will. I promise."

"And, Carlos...trees." Fleur's eye sparkles like dewdrops on a leaf at dawn. "Trees. They are us. Trees that see."

Carlos nods. "That's right."

"Conscious. Sapient. Watch and feel and breathe Dust. But they're trees."

She's drifting. Is this the last of her thoughts as an individual, coming through only in scattered fragments, like a distant radio station breaking up into static? "Fleur, are you trying to tell me something? Because I don't understand."

"Carlos, Carlos, Carlos." Her face hardly moves at all any more. Grey-green lips bend around a wooden, whispering voice. "Better electrum."

Chapter Text

When the time comes to test Henriette's downright Frankenstinian monster of a new invention, both Li Huas leave their bio research aside and come down to watch. "Can you give us a simple explanation of what it does?" asks one.

"Sure," says Henriette, looking up from one last check of all the wires and connections. She's been working nonstop on this thing every day. "This part here is a typical Rutherford-Geiger tube, which detects radioactive particles when they create an anbaric charge by ionizing the gas inside. Now, Carlos's theory about the anbaromagnetic interactions of Rusakov particles means that —"

"Okay, okay, stop," says the other Li Hua. "Not physicists, remember? When we say 'simple', we meant as in 'their DNA is being washed out' levels of simple."

"It detects how much possibly-deadly portal activity there is, or is likely to be in the near future," offers Carlos. He's using a bottle of compressed air to make sure there's no stray dust on the lenses. "That's what this gauge is for. And this needle points toward the strongest source of portal activity, or pre-portal activity, in...hopefully a dozen miles or so."

"We would need more precisely-built equipment to get a better range," adds Köhler from the sidelines. "But this handmade version should serve to validate the theory."

"Much better," says the first Li Hua. "So this is a pretty big innovation, right?"

"Groundbreaking," says Köhler. "We are measuring a quantity that no one in this world has measured before."

"Which means we get to name and quantify the units. Like Ampère did, or Hertz, or Tesla." Carlos is trying to sound cool about it, but if this pans out, it's going to be the most exciting thing that's happened to them all year. (Has it really been that long? Yes, they arrived in the middle of last June, and it's already early May.) "Do us a favor, tell Henriette they should be called Gaillards."

Both Li Huas look at Henriette in mild confusion. "Why don't you like that idea?" asks one. "I would kill to have a standard unit named after myself."

"Not literally," adds the other quickly.

"Oh, of course, not literally. I'm sure any research partners I had at the time would see reason long before it had to come to that."

"Exactly. So what's the problem?"

"I came up with a different name that's a lot better, that's all," says Henriette.

Carlos grimaces. "She wants to call them Fatality Units."

"I do not understand your objection," puts in Köhler. "It is a dry term, yes, but perfectly serviceable."

With a grin, Henriette mimes speaking into a phone, or maybe a walkie-talkie. "All right, everyone, stay safe out there, because I just took a reading and it looks like Night Vale is giving us thirty-four eff-yous today. That's thirty-four, eight more eff-yous than average, so look sharp and watch each other's backs, all right?"

"Ah," says Köhler.

"You're right," says one Li Hua to Henriette. "That's so much better."

"And it's not like we can't still name the device after me," adds Henriette. "Like the Rutherford counter, or the Faraday cup, or the Christie bridge."

"The Gaillard meter," muses the other Li Hua. "Has a nice ring to it."

"It's directional, so I'm thinking the Gaillard Compass." Henriette's finger hovers over the on-switch, sandwiched between the power pack and one of the unscrewed panels letting wires connect to the innards of the original Rusakov meter. "Ready, everyone?"

Humans and daemons around the room answer in choppy chorus: "Ready."

Henriette flips the switch.

Part of the machine hums. Another part starts clicking, lightly, in a slow rhythm.

The needle on the FU gauge jumps up from the base and starts waving around, while the directional needle wobbles on its base. As the experimental theologians watch, breathless, the first one settles into a much-narrower wiggle about a third of the way across the semicircle, while the second spins to northwest and hovers there.

"Cool," says one Li Hua at last.

"So how many eff-yous is that?" asks the other, nodding to the gauge. "And is it safer or more dangerous than usual?"

"We have no idea," says Carlos happily. "Isn't it thrilling?"

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Less than thrilling: Carlos is still persona non grata to a significant portion of town.

He's been quietly disinvited from the shooting range, so no more marksmanship classes. Steve asked him not to come to any PTA meetings for a while, because there are other parents who would object, and it would be a hassle if the Glow Cloud had to keep wiping their memories about it. The small size of the remaining team turns out to have one advantage: there's always at least one vehicle free, so Carlos doesn't have to worry about who he'll meet on the bus.

So it's a surprise when, at the chapel one afternoon, Josie's falcon daemon knocks on the window. Carlos opens it, and Ojansi claw-walks through to the inside windowsill of the ordinater room. "Carlos Perfecto, when are you going to come back around and visit us?"

"Um," says Carlos. "Do you mean me personally, or the experimental theologians in general?"

"I mean you, young man."

"But also the team in general!" adds a disembodied voice from just outside the window. Apparently there's an Erika here. "You used to take pictures. Nobody's taken pictures since I got here. I want to be in a photogram."

Carlos sobers. "Over the last month, we...lost...both of our photographers."

Erika doesn't seem bothered. "You still have cameras, though, right?"

Carlos has to admit that they do.

He packs one up, lets the biologists in the next room know where he's going, and, since they only came in this morning in a single car and it's in use, walks to the bus stop a few stores down from Big Rico's. Ojansi and, presumably, Erika come along; the falcon perches on top of the bus sign.

"So, you aren't...pre-emptively mad at us," says Carlos hopefully, holding Isaña in the crook of one arm and worrying his bus pass in his hands.

"Of course not. We don't doubt for a second that you love this town."

Carlos breathes a sigh of relief. Even though Josie didn't argue with the prophecy during the hearing, it turns out she doesn't buy it after all.

"Most likely your betrayal will be out of a misguided desire to protect it. If not a complete accident."

So much for relief.

"Let's go, Carlos," says Isaña from his arms. "We don't need to sit around and listen to this. We've got Whispering Forest resin to refine."

There's a bus turning onto the street a quarter mile down, probably the 47, which goes right by the car lot. Carlos turns away. "You're absolutely right," he says, starting back up the road towards the chapel.

"Wait!" exclaims Erika. She coalesces into a bird, green with a yellow beak, and lands on Carlos's shoulder. "Please don't go. We want photos. And we need another person for Risk, because Erika doesn't like playing." She combs some of Carlos's hair out of the way and bumps her beak against his ear. "For Dana's sake, c'mon. Please?"

And Carlos can hardly abandon Dana just because he's upset with Josie.

The bus driver, a heavyset man with a bearded dragon daemon in a scoop beside him, puts his hand over the machine right as Carlos is trying to scan his card. "Afraid it won't take yours."

"What? It should be fine. There were at least ten dollars left the last time I used it."

"Not sure you heard me right," says the driver, slow and faux-pleasant, bushy eyebrows furrowed over his eyes. "Your card don't work on this bus."

Carlos looks over his shoulder. This really isn't the kind of situation that calls for full-on angelic interference, but witchy backup might do the trick. "Ojansi? The gentleman here doesn't seem to be as...charitable...as you and Josie."

He steps aside to let the falcon soar past, and the driver yanks his hand out of the way to keep from having a daemon land on top of it.

"Allow me to perform some special witch magic that repairs your equipment," says Ojansi sternly, feathers flaring, bright yellow eyes fixed on the driver. "After all, you could never simply turn down service to a resident who, as I'm sure you're aware, loves this gentle little town as much as perhaps anyone here. Carlos, try it now."

Carlos scans his pass and sprints down the aisle of the bus before the driver can do anything to stop him. About a third of the seats are full; he finds an empty row and slides into it, with Ojansi and Erika landing casually in the seat beside him.

There's a secret police officer all the way in the rear, badly hidden, the giant ears of her fennec fox daemon sticking up from behind the seat backs. Carlos really wants to ask whether the police have any plans to take him in and interrogate him about his supposed upcoming betrayal, and if so, whether they would mind scheduling a nice convenient time to do it so he doesn't have to be on edge about it any more. But he also doesn't want to tempt fate, so he lets it be.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Josie's front door is propped open, and a delicious smell wafts out as Carlos climbs the little porch steps. "Josie? It's me," he calls. "Are you making scones?"

"Carlos! It's about time," comes Josie's reply from the kitchen. "You go ahead and make yourself at home. I'll be right out."

Ojansi soars past him to the kitchen, while Erika hasn't been with them since a few bus stops ago, so Carlos lets himself into the living room. There's a low conversation going on in there already, which he assumes is the TV, and/or other angels.

It's neither.

"Oh! Hello, Carlos," says Eustathias, Dana's sand-cat daemon, from her perch on the arm of a well-stuffed chair. She turns to the occupant of the chair. "This is Carlos. Have the two of you met?"

"Only in passing," says the Man in the Tan Jacket. His deerskin suitcase sits against the chair next to his feet; the insect-daemon lanyard hangs around his neck. "It's nice to be introduced, Carlos. I'm —"

He definitely gives a name, then. Carlos is almost positive. Something like Eli. Or Emmett. Or possibly Edmund.

"— although if you forget, don't worry too much about it."

"He's been visiting with Dana," adds Eustathias. "He says he has become a friend of hers. Which, by definition, means he has become a friend of mine, even before I met him." She frowns. "Separation is...confusing. No, not confusing. Easy to understand. But difficult to live."

"I can only imagine," says Isaña. Carlos sets her on the coffee table; Eustathias springs down to join her, and they touch noses. "How are you doing? You look healthy, that's good. Are you feeling okay?"

The sand cat stretches her legs and wide paws, arching her back. "Yes. Yes, I have been feeling better. "

Carlos, meanwhile, focuses on the man possibly known as Ernest. "You can get in and out of the dog park? If you're a friend of Dana's, why haven't you gotten her out too?"

"I go in by astral projection. Even if she knew how to do it, she couldn't use it to get out," says the man. "Besides, I'm pretty sure she's destined to find a path out on her own."

Carlos is getting really tired of destiny. "Listen, as long as you're here...is there any chance you would let me take some photograms of you?" His memory, as always, refuses to retain any physical information about the man. Look away for a second, and he loses even the most basic details, like height, or skin color, or how many eyes he has.

The man in the tan jacket raises his eyebrows. (There's a basic fact: he has eyebrows. Surely Carlos can remember that.) "I suppose it can't hurt to try."

So Carlos sets up the camera on its tripod and takes photos, some with Eustathias or Isaña there for comparison, others with the man alone. There don't seem to be any angels around right now. He wants to get some photos with Josie and/or Ojansi, but the falcon daemon flies out the door carrying some kind of parcel before he can ask, and then the man in the tan jacket has to leave. Josie hands him a scone on his way out.

"Sorry to make you wait so long," she says, offering another scone to Carlos, which he's only too happy to take. She's speaking Spanish with them today, presumably for the sake of their feline guest. "I was packing a lunch for Dana. That girl is almost certainly not getting enough fresh fruit and whole grain in her diet these days."

"Is that what Ojansi was carrying?" asks Isaña (Carlos's mouth is too full of scone to talk). "Even if he stays high off the ground, I didn't think he'd be able to fly over the dog park."

"Oh, he can't. But some very industrious Boy Scouts working on their Siege Warfare badge have built a nice serviceable trebuchet."

Carlos nods, and swallows. "Do you have the man in the tan jacket over a lot?"

"He's only stopped by a few times. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure how I feel about that man. The angels don't care for him...and besides, he's been spotted hanging around with the Apache Tracker quite a bit, and really, how would you feel about someone who stayed friends with someone that obnoxiously racist? But not a lot of people know Eustathias is here, and I don't want to deny her the company." Josie smiles down at the sand cat. "Khoshekh can't come over as much as he would like to, I'm afraid."

"You don't have to worry about it, Miss Josie," says Eustathias politely. "Did you make tea?"

Josie did. She puts down the scones and brings it out, while Carlos lets himself sit down and tries to marshal what details he can remember about the man whose name might or might not be Evan. Tan jacket. Deerskin suitcase. Insect-daemon lanyard. Eyebrows. He did have eyebrows, right?

"We can visit more often, if that would help," says Isaña to Eustathias.

The sand cat purrs. "That would be very nice."

"But...not when Khoshekh's here, if that's okay."

"I'm sure we can figure out how to schedule that," says Josie, setting a tea tray on one side of the coffee table. "Here, pour yourself a mug."

"Did the two of you have a fight?" asks Dana's daemon with interest. "That seems like it would be sad. You were close, I thought. You seemed close the last time I saw you. That is, not you, alone, but you and him, together."

Carlos remembers a frantic Cecil shoving him up against the wall of the NVCR tape room, and blushes. "It's complicated, all right?" He shoots a sidelong glance at Josie. "I don't know if he's, um, told you anything...."

"What's between you and Cecil is for you and Cecil to settle," says Josie simply. "Now, I know Erika wanted to play Risk, but she isn't back yet, so how do you three feel about Monopoly? Or Scrabble?"

Isaña is still standing next to Eustathias. "Isn't there anything we can do for Dana? Beyond sending her food?"

"She's not safe," agrees Carlos. "The place we're not thinking too hard about is full of hooded spectres. I know the man in the tan jacket can get in and out of there safely...somehow...I don't remember how...but whatever he does, it isn't something Dana can do, I don't think."

He remembers the crowd of daemons blinking out of existence at the gates of the dog park, and fights a shiver. The idea that he could relax and play a board game with Eustathias, when he knows the same thing might happen to her at any moment....

"Dana is safe," says the sand cat daemon softly.

"She is? How do you know?"

Eustathias looks to Josie, as if asking for permission. The witch nods. "He can keep a secret."

So Dana's daemon turns into a kangaroo rat.

As a startled Carlos looks on, she cycles through the forms of a cricket, a blue-tailed skink, a desert cottontail, and finally a margay: the kind native to this world, with two front paws and two hind paws. "I — I didn't realize," he stammers. "I thought you were settled."

"We told everyone we had settled eight months ago." Eustathias switches back to the familiar beige, wide-eyed sand cat. "It was already unusually late. People had started to think we were strange. Perhaps we are, a little. We knew that Cecil was a very late settler, so we told him the truth after we were accepted for the station internship, but before this...ordeal...we had told no one else."

She seems uncertain and shy, so Isaña leans comfortingly against her side. "Does this feel like it might be the form you settle in? More comfortable, more natural than others?"

"Maybe," says Eustathias, leaning back against Isaña. "We're very used to it by now. Could that mean the same thing that you mean?"

Carlos doubts it. Most young daemons have a handful of favorite forms, the ones they keep coming back to unless there's a specific reason to choose differently, and these are the ones they get most accustomed to. Isaña's favorites included a polar bear when she wanted to intimidate (or play Iorek Byrnison to Carlos's Lyra), a zebra-tailed lizard to be small and easily carried, a spider monkey to use opposable thumbs, and a yellow-billed magpie to fly. She almost never spent any time as an armadillo until, right after Carlos turned fourteen, she became one for good.

In fact, although Carlos doesn't want to pry, he has a strong feeling that Eustathias is choosing to keep to a feline form for the same reason Isaña used to spend so much time as a pine marten.

"I guess there's really no way to tell," he says out loud. "Either way, after everything that's happened to you, we should all be very glad that you're such a late settler. Also, both Scrabble and Monopoly would be fine with me."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Henriette stays late at the chapel every night that week, working on polishing the theory and schematics of the Gaillard Compass and its Fatality Units into a publishable research paper. Li Hua and Li Hua, too, work into the night on their DNA studies, apparently sure they're on the verge of a breakthrough. Köhler works with them during normal hours, but prefers to go home for dinner.

One night, driving home with Carlos in the passenger seat, Köhler says, "Dr. Ramirez, I understand that there is...excess living space...in the larger of our rented houses."

"That's right." Until recently, the bigger rental's bedrooms were occupied by Carlos, Henriette, Adriana, Brad, the Li Huas (in Dotan's former room), and Mateo (in Ichiro's). At this point one of the Li Huas has co-opted the room Adriana left behind, but that still leaves two free. "When we get new team members in September, they'll fill up again."

"I did not doubt it." Köhler coughs uncomfortably. "However, in the meantime, it would be more...convenient...if I were to take one. The smaller house, we would not have to air-condition it. The appliances, such as the refrigerator, we could power down. It would be most economical."

He doesn't say anything about being lonely, or about the discomfort of having Gerald's empty room on one side of his and Fleur's on the other. Carlos doesn't ask. "That makes a lot of sense, yeah. Do you want me to help move your things?"

They polish off some of the leftovers in the smaller house's fridge for dinner, then get to work. Köhler decides that the room Mateo vacated has sufficient bookshelves, and insists on personally carrying and arranging his own books, while his binturong daemon is large enough to carry his alarm clock and other appliances. Carlos hauls a lot of clothes, filling a hamper out of Köhler's old bureau and emptying it next to the new one.

Henriette and the Li Huas are just getting home as Carlos and Köhler finish unplugging the appliances and drawing the blinds. They take in the new living situation with a couple of nods, then go straight upstairs to crash. Carlos is about ready to do the same, until Köhler picks up the signal-jamming craft snowman from its shelf in the living room and asks for an explanation of how the laundry machines work.

In the basement, once they get the washing machine rumbling, Köhler switches on the snowman.

"There is something known to the alethiometrists at Heidelberg that I believe you would find a comfort," he begins. "However, it is not something I am authorized to share. Can I trust in your discretion?"

"Lots of people have trusted in my discretion in this town," says Carlos, adjusting Isaña in his arms. "So far, so good."

For a moment he wonders if Cecil isn't the only alethiometrist to decide that Carlos is the subject of a prophecy. If Köhler, too, has been a kind of spy all along, sent to observe Carlos and report back to Heidelberg on how closely he's adhering to the role destiny has predicted for him.

Thankfully, Köhler starts on a different subject. "You are aware that, as a child, Dr. Belacqua was also the subject of alethiometric prediction."

"Of course."

"But you are not aware of the specifics."

Carlos remembers the specifics of the prophecy as presented in the 1970's Lyra-and-Pan cartoon. Somehow, he doubts those were historically accurate. "I thought the details were lost? Although I assume part of it was that she needed to be given the Oxford alethiometer. There's no other reason the scholars at Jordan College would have just handed it to a twelve-year-old and let her run off with it."

"That was part of it, yes," says Köhler. Rozarilde rises up on her hind legs beside him, so he can run his fingers through her fur. "The details are not lost. They are kept confidential within the alethiometry departments of Oxford and Heidelberg. Perhaps there are witch-clans that know as well. But witches keep their own counsel."

A year ago, Carlos would have been bowled over by a revelation like that. By this point, though, it's more "mildly annoying" than anything. "Confidential? What are they afraid of, Magisterium disapproval? Maybe back in the day Oxford was in a touchy position, what with funding Lord Asriel's alternate-world research while it was still actively considered heresy, but it's 2013 now, not 1893."

Köhler raises his eyebrows. (These, Carlos has no trouble remembering as a physical feature. Bushy and white.)

"Not that I would make them public if you told me," Carlos adds quickly. "I'll be discreet. I just won't be happy about it."

The older theologian nods, looking...well, disapproving, but not any more than usual. "And you are aware that, in the end, Dr. Belacqua's quest was a great success. A great benefit to the world."

"To all the worlds," agrees Carlos. Arranging the downfall of a vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium was probably only a big deal to this world, but arranging the downfall of the eternal prison-world of the dead? There's no way to overstate how monumental that was. For every single conscious being that ever lived. Anywhere.

"This was part of the alethiometer's prediction. That the young Belacqua would be at the heart of something essential to the future of the world. It was also predicted that...along the course of her quest...she, too, would commit a great betrayal."

Carlos catches his breath.

(Okay, now he's a little bowled-over.)

"What was it?" he breathes. "And to who?"

"That, I do not know. As far as I am aware, there is no record of it, in either alethiometry department. Perhaps it is known to private individuals. I believe it most likely that it is no longer known at all."

Which means it's completely possible that, whatever the betrayal was supposed to be, Lyra Silvertongue found her way around it. Or the whole thing could have been a mistaken reading in the first place. Sure, Oxford had talented alethiometrists at the time — Dame Hannah Relf would have been in charge then, right? — but none of them had the gift. Their interpretations were fallible.

If not for the fact that it would betray Köhler's trust, invade Dr. Belacqua's posthumous privacy, and require talking to Cecil, he would ask Cecil to look it up.

Instead he says, "You know, when we were little and wanted nothing more than to be like Lyra and Pan when we grew up, this is not what we had in mind."

"In many ways, you will never compare to them," says Köhler, in a way that is probably supposed to be reassuring. "But for this and other reasons, I have come to believe that whatever your role here...in the end, history will smile upon it."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The Whispering Forest, when Carlos visits these days, no longer openly entreats him to stay and join its ranks. He keeps close to the edge anyway, for safety's sake, and wears the harness so his companion (one of the Li Huas, this evening) can haul him and Isaña back out if necessary.

"I want to thank you again for all the information you've given us," he tells the woods. "About the worlds you came from before, and how long you stayed there, and how long each of these trees has been part of you."

"We like to help," whispers a soft Spanish voice through the leaves. "Your experiments are so interesting, Carlos."

"The electrum lenses made from your resin are being treated with the Asriel emulsion overnight. I'll come back some time in the next few days and tell you what the results are."

"So considerate," says one small voice. "So compassionate."

"That man you like just doesn't appreciate you," adds another. "Not the way we do."

Carlos can't stop the Forest from seeing whatever it sees about his feelings for Cecil, but he can sidestep this conversation, so he does. "After I say the other thing I came out here to tell you, you might not appreciate me so much. It...isn't good news for you."

"Who tells me true, though in his tale lie death, / I hear as if he flatter'd."

Even though the voice isn't recognizable as Fleur's, the Shakespeare quote makes Carlos take heart. "It's about death, yes," he says in English, the quote having switched his brain over. "Sapient beings can't survive in worlds outside their own. We have some estimates about the rates of degeneration...and we're fairly sure that your older trees will die off within seven to ten years."

"Oh dear," rustles the Forest. "You're right. That's very sad."

"Is that why you...absorb...new people, starting as soon as you arrived in this world? Because the trees that were born here will be able to live their natural lives, and your consciousness as a whole won't die?"

"We ask new people to join us because they're lonely," murmurs the Forest. "Lonely and sad, and we want them to come be with us and be happy, because we love them."

Which doesn't necessarily mean the team's theory is wrong. There are similar theological/evolutionary reasons why humans and their daemons stay close together, but if you ask the average person on the street about it, they're going to explain it in terms of feelings.

(Carlos has never done this much thinking about trees in his life. Maybe botany is good for something other than gardening after all.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A gentle morning rain is beginning to fall outside when the team arrives at the chapel. Not a rain of dead animals or tiny prismatic crystals or even bright-green water like they got that one time, just ordinary, non-toxic H2O.

Henriette takes the day's first reading on the Gaillard Compass. Unlike the original Rusakov meters, it has so far always registered about the same results no matter where in town they measure, so they're keeping it in the chapel for now. "This isn't good. We've been getting a steady increase in FUs for the past two days, and it's still going up."

"We are to be stuck with this term, I see," says Köhler.

"Apparently," sighs Carlos. "Look, we've only been doing this for a week or so — could this be just a normal fluctuation? Or is it getting to a level where we should be warning someone about it?"

"Hard to be sure," says Henriette. "We should check it against the data from the Sandstorm. And from times of other portal activity...you were taking readings with a Rutherford counter when the one with the pterodactyls opened during a PTA meeting, right?"

"That's right."

"Fantastic. Show me where those are, then go check on your Asriel-emulsion project. Köhler, you're going to be helping me run some numbers."

In spite of the cloud of tension hanging over the day, they settle into the normal rhythms of research. Carlos lets himself and Isaña into the darkroom alone, trying not to dwell on the memory of Brad and Fleur discovering their first improbable images of angels here, or of how they had to scrub the blood (and other bodily substances) of Brad's double off this very floor after Li Hua (or her double) brought him to a messy end.

A row of photograms he only half-remembers taking is hanging on a line, developed and dry. Carlos takes one down, then picks Isaña up and sets her on the table so they can both see it clearly in the reddish glow of the safelight. "So it was Josie's living room where we saw him. I thought it was at her house, but I wasn't sure."

His daemon taps one claw against the dark splotches that dapple the image, obscuring, among other things, the face and hands of the Man in the Tan Jacket. "I'm guessing these aren't a one-off error with the negative."

Carlos glances at the rest of the photos. "Doesn't look like it. But at least we can tell he has a normal level of ambient Rusakov particles. And look at this." He runs a finger along a particularly brilliant swirling cluster of Dust, part of it obscured by the uneven dark spot that covers the man's features. "Suggest anything to you?"

"It suggests that I really, really wish we could see his forehead," says Isaña. "But even without seeing it, I bet you anything he's been trepanned."

They take down the rest of the photos with slow and gentle movements, arrange them carefully in a folder, print up a meticulous label with the time and date and subject. They may be stalling, just a little. What happens if, after all this buildup, they start examining the treated Whispering Forest electrum and don't find a single new property? What happens if they do?

At last they can't avoid it any longer. Carlos pulls on a pair of thin cotton gloves, piles the treated plates and lenses into a box, and carries them out into the chapel's main room.

He picks up one of the plates first.

Unlike the electrum retrieved from Jorge's Tacos, its color is smooth and even, no impurities or warping within. Like that earlier electrum, when held at the right angle, its orangey-yellow tint vanishes entirely, and the colors on the far side appear more brilliant and vivid. Carlos leans over on one elbow on the table out here so he and Isaña can look through it together. "Remember this?"

"Sure do."

"I think it's clearer and brighter than the old ones," adds Carlos hopefully.

"We can do a side-by-side comparison later," says Isaña. "Now hold two up in front of each other, the way Fleur did when she was trying to create a polarizing filter. Then we can set things up to run an anbaric current through them, like Gerald would have wanted."

Carlos picks up a second flat electrum plate. He doesn't remember Brewster's angle for the substance, so if he manages to polarize anything it'll be out of sheer dumb luck, but it can't hurt to wave them around at random and see what happens.

With gloved hands he holds one plate behind the other, and moves it back and forth.

A flash of gold.

Given the material, that's hardly unexpected.

And yet. And yet, it didn't seem like the same hue as the natural color of the electrum.

Carlos moves the second plate again, more slowly this time.

They're about four inches apart when it happens.

The colors of the world are fuzzily gold-tinted for a half-second before the new source of light resolves into sharp, dazzling, breathtaking clarity. Flecks of gold — scattered like broken flakes of sunlight off the surface of the ocean — drifting through the air exactly like ordinary dust caught in a sunbeam, except for the way they cluster with purpose around the chapel equipment.

Carlos's hands tremble. As they do he sees that his own fingers, the ones gripping the far side of the more distant plate, are the brightest thing in view.

Without a second's thought he turns on his heel and holds the plates between himself and Isaña, so they can look at each other.

It is nothing like looking at Rusakov particles caught with the Asriel emulsion. Film can only hold so much information, so there are tradeoffs: visible light in those videos is dimmed, the colors of objects muted, while the light from the Rusakov particles obscures whatever lies behind them. Here, with this, Carlos can see everything. The Dust is overlaid on his own ordinary vision, light and color untouched, and even the thick swirling haze around his little armadillo obscures nothing. If anything, it makes her shape clearer.

"Oh, Carlos," breathes Isaña, overcome.

Because she's seeing exactly the same thing he sees: the currents of conscious intent that flow around and through and from the two of them, more subtle than any video ever captured, all in real time. He's never doubted for a moment that his daemon is curious and brave and thoughtful and caring, but now everything he knows to be inside her is also painted into the air around her.

She is perfect and beautiful.

The plates clatter as Carlos sets them unsteadily back in their box, to clutch her against his heartbeat with shaking arms. Partly because he loves her so much, and partly because he's rocked by the understanding that this is probably going to go down as one of the most important discoveries of the twenty-first century.

He's still embracing her as footsteps echo down the stairs. "Print a label — we can at least get one meaningful marking on this gauge," Henriette is saying in the hall, presumably to Köhler. "Wonder Twins, whatever you're doing, drop it and grab your guns. We're probably going to need them."

A few more steps and she bursts through the door of the main chapel room, marmot daemon at her heels.

"I really hope you're at a good breaking point, because the situation isn't nearly at Sandstorm levels of FUs, but it is fast approaching pterodactyl — Carlos? Are you okay?"

"Come here," says Carlos hoarsely. "Come see."

When he holds the plates between the two of them, it's all the explanation he needs to give. Henriette through the lenses is the picture of keen determination, friendly by nature but a fighter by necessity, and the way she's in the middle of something important is visible in the eddies of Dust around her even as she stops short and stares in wonder at the eddies of Dust around Carlos.

Köhler comes in next. "The label is made," he tells them. "These pterodactyls, was any biological material from them preserved? If any...You have discovered something."

Carlos passes over the electrum. "Hold them four inches apart," he breathes, then tries to focus on Henriette. "You were saying...?"

Henriette shakes herself, blinking hard. "The danger level. It's close to what we've retroactively calculated from the day with the pterodactyls. People will almost definitely die. We should take the Compass out and try to triangulate the source." She nods toward the electrum, now being held by Köhler as he gazes in awe at his binturong daemon. "And that. We should take that."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

They cart the equipment to the van, piece by piece. Henriette takes charge of the cart-sized Compass, hefted into the back. Li Hua and Li Hua settle in with rifles as long as their arms. Carlos is trying to build something that can serve as a passable spyglass to put the electrum in, using cardboard, scissors, and generous amounts of duct tape. Köhler drives.

"If we're going to worry about something, let's start with those strange, daemonless kids over there," suggests one of the Li Huas, fingering the leather of her rifle's grip and eying the handful of dark-haired children who seem to have appeared out of nowhere on the chapel's front lawn.

Carlos takes a moment to study them through the electrum. "They're not daemonless. The Rusakov concentration is too high. Either they all have witch-ranges, or they're from a world where their daemons are inside them." Daemons that would be unsettled if they were external. He can tell by the way the currents of intention around them are less focused, harder to read. "I don't think they're malevolent. But that's only a hypothesis."

"If they're still around when we get back, we'll try to find out what they want," says Henriette from her position at the Compass. "In the meantime: the pre-portal activity is currently off to the left."

Chapter Text

The van traces an awkward rectangular spiral through the Night Vale streets, zeroing in on the source of a weakness in the fabric between worlds. Carlos watches out the windows with the electrum spyglass, trying to keep in mind that he's supposed to be looking for useful information and not just gawking at the beauty of the Rusakov particles made visible.

He's been studying them since undergrad, and he never for an instant guessed they would be this beautiful.

The car turns onto Summerset, and Carlos's stomach drops; he has to put down the makeshift spyglass and fight a wave of nausea. One of the Li Huas notices — probably the one who was present the last time Carlos was on this road. "What's wrong, and is it just you, or is it something we should be worried about?"

"It's just me," says Carlos. "As long as we don't make any hard lefts.."

He hands over the spyglass so she can see for herself. Out the left-hand window, at a safe five-hundred-foot distance, stand the smooth obsidian walls of the dog park.

At one point the team had theorized that the Rusakov dead zone came from something in this area, maybe a portal or several, sucking Dust out of the world. Now they can see clearly that it's almost the opposite. Around the dog park there's an invisible barrier that the Rusakov particles don't seem able to cross: like a fluid refusing to mix with one of a different density, they flow normally through air currents on one side of the line, but never naturally drift into the other.

On the one hand, the theoretical possibilities are endless. Think of the tests you could do, the precise readings you could get, in an area with a background Rusakov level of zero.

On the other hand, Carlos can't believe he willingly walked into that.

Thankfully, Henriette directs them all the way past the walls, to turn at the Raúl's. The parking lot is unusually full for the middle of the work day, especially on a rainy day (however light the rain) in a town where Carlos would bet half the population has never owned an umbrella. Also, a bunch of the spaces without cars are taken by more of those strange, daemonless children.

"Park anywhere," says Henriette. "The FUs are either coming from Raúl's itself, or from something very close. This device isn't sensitive enough to narrow it down any further."

"Or possibly," adds her alpine marmot daemon, "the area of the disturbance is actually that wide."

They get out as a group to do recon, with one well-armed Li Hua on either side, wren daemons perched on their shoulders so there's not an angle they aren't watching. Carlos brings the first-aid kit, just in case. He can hear some kind of gathering out behind the building, the low chatter of a group of people at work. Are they the ones on the verge of tearing open a portal? Or have they gathered to defend against it?

When they get to the vacant lot in back of the Raúl's, though, it turns out to be neither. There's a big party tent set up over the grass, with a cheap podium in front and rows of chairs and tables being unloaded to fill the rest. Cheap paper streamers are hanging up everywhere.

"What's going on?" asks Isaña from beside Carlos's feet. "Is that a banner? What does it say?"

"Great Job, Frankie and Barty," Carlos reads aloud. "Guess they made it to Eternal Scouts."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A couple of uniformed Scoutmasters (none of which are Earl Harlan, to Carlos's relief) are organizing the setup, with the help of several badge-wearing volunteers. Carlos recognizes Flora Sandero and Diane Craton from the PTA. Henriette explains to Diane that they're here for important theological purposes; one of the Scoutmasters inspects the Gaillard Compass; and, with a general shrug, the team is allowed to hang around.

For everyone but Carlos, this means they get deputized into putting out table settings. For Carlos and Isaña, it means they get politely asked to sit in a chair off to the side (at least it's out of the rain), where a couple of Dreadnought Scouts are assigned to stand guard.

Somebody nearby has a radio on. It's just far enough away that Carlos can't make out all the words, but he gathers that somebody's cat has had kittens, and they're trying to recruit people to adopt.

Cecil seems thrilled by the news. Well, good. It's good that he's happy. Carlos isn't such a small-minded person that he wants Cecil to be unhappy forever, just because Cecil turned half the town against him and unwittingly stomped on his heart in the process.

...He just wishes Cecil had a slightly smaller capacity for joy right now.

And sure, Carlos was overjoyed earlier this morning, when it had been the same amount of time (as far as such things can be measured in Night Vale) since he got two people killed thanks to his bad decisions...but that was different! He made an important theological discovery. You can't compare that to kittens.

Said important theological discovery is currently in Carlos's pocket, and staying there, because he doesn't want to risk anyone spotting how utterly petty his intentions are right now.

Instead he does what he should always do first in the face of any Night Vale crisis: talk to the locals. "Has anyone mentioned to you guys yet why we're here?"

The Dreadnought Scouts, both old enough to have settled daemons but young enough to have acne, look at each other. "To study the Eternal Scout ceremony?" says one, a somewhat round Corean boy with a black monitor lizard daemon.

"So you think the ceremony is worth studying?" asks Carlos, latching onto the tangent. It might be important. "If you were us, what would you study about it?"

"Dunno," says the other, a long-haired Skraeling boy with a spotted owl. Like the lizard, she's wearing a Scouting neckerchief. "It's never happened before, so everything, I guess."

"So you don't have any idea whether, say, there might be portals involved?"

"Dunno," repeats the boy with the owl. "Are you here because of a portal?"

"That's right. According to our readings, there's either going to be a moderately dangerous window to another world opening here in the near future, or an more-dangerous window opening in the less-near future." Realizing how unhelpful that sounds, he adds, "We're, uh, still refining our equipment on this."

"Huh."

Carlos gestures to the nearest group of strange, daemonless children, who are standing just past the edge of the tent, getting drizzled on. "How about these kids? Has anything like them ever appeared around here before, do you know?"

"Dunno," says the boy with the lizard daemon. "Not that I ever heard of."

These are officially the least helpful Boy Scouts Carlos has ever met.

"The police had an announcement about the strange, daemonless children," adds the boy with the owl.

Carlos sits up straighter. "What did it say?"

"Citizens are advised that these children are creepy."

Great. "Of course it did. Look, would you mind if I turned my chair around?"

Once he's facing the strange children, he tries to communicate with them. It doesn't go far. The kids eye him suspiciously, and one whispers something to another, meaning that (a) they can perceive his existence and (b) they communicate through sound, which rules out the most obvious barriers to conversation. But their language is nothing Carlos recognizes, and even when he goes as simple as me-Carlos-you-???, in both English and Spanish, they don't care to respond.

So Carlos figures out as much as he can by observation. There doesn't seem to be a lot of racial variety; all the kids he sees have olive skin, long faces, dark curly hair, and dark eyes. "If they were from this world, I'd guess they were Mediterranean," he tells Isaña. "The youngest I've seen are maybe five or six. Oldest no more than fourteen."

"Old enough to have some social awareness, young enough to be unsettled," summarizes Isaña.

"A good hypothesis."

"Are they all as...disheveled...as this group here?"

"All the ones I've seen, yes." The kids' curls are either unevenly chopped short or tied back in messy ponytails; most of their clothes are mis-sized, generally oversized, with cuffs and shirtsleeves pinned up or torn off. That said, the clothes are hardly Carlos's mental image of street-urchin rags. If anything, they look like the remains of costumes out of some Italian opera: once-rich colors faded and patched, delicate golden embroidery reduced to a mess of frayed and well-picked threads.

"Someone has been taking horrible care of these children," murmurs his daemon.

"Assuming they didn't just pop into existence fully-formed," points out one of the Li Huas in English, sidling up next to them. "Which is a serious possibility. Speaking as one of the resident experts on the subject."

"Good point," says Carlos.

"And if that turns out to be the case...if there's absolutely no possibility of them having parents, which, in turn, means nobody to complain about not getting informed parental consent...."

Carlos gives her a stern look. "You are not doing unauthorized experiments on these kids."

Li Hua, whether the original or her double, looks chagrined. "Can't we at least get samples? Just a few tiny finger-sticks, come on, I bet they won't even cry."

The Dreadnought Scout with the lizard daemon cuts in, using halting English of his own. "She asks you for permission why? You are not any more the leader of this group, yes?"

"That's right." Carlos sticks to English, but keeps it slow and well-enunciated, figuring the boy might appreciate the chance to practice. "I bet you they already asked Henriette — she's the leader — and she said no. So now they're asking me, because if I say yes, at least it gives them an excuse to hide behind when Henriette gets mad."

He raises his eyebrows at the nearby Li Hua, who shrugs. "Look, it's basic strategy. If Mom says you can't have something, ask Dad."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Earl Harlan shows up toward the end of the setup. The rain has stopped. The local rating in FUs is still ticking upward.

"I'm bringing the van over so we can keep a better eye on those readings," announces Henriette, once she and the others are relieved from setup duties.

"I'm ducking into the Raúl's for some chips," adds a Li Hua.

The strange, daemonless children seem to be multiplying. Henriette has to drive the van extremely slowly across the grass to keep from hitting any of them; Li Hua, on her return, complains that they're lurking in all the supermarket aisles. As the ceremony is about to start, they fill up almost all the space not taken by Night Vale locals, vehicles, or furniture.

"I find all of this very disquieting," says Köhler. He and Henriette end up sitting on the tailgate with the hatch popped, next to Carlos's chair, while Li Hua and Li Hua are up on the roof snacking.

"You're not the only one," says Carlos. He's taken a quick glance at the crowd of children through the spyglass again, and by now he can see that they're waiting. Somehow they've all found a way to link their intentions, so that hundreds of them are all waiting for the same signal.

Henriette, meanwhile, is frowning at the Compass. "The numbers are plateauing...."

"Shhh!" hisses the Dreadnought Scout with the owl daemon. "It's starting!"

A Scoutmaster with a blue jay daemon steps up to the temporary podium, in front of the flags of Hispania Nova and the Boy Scouts themselves, and starts into a few stock phrases of congratulatory pablum.

"Carlos, can you see anything?" whispers Henriette.

Carlos pulls out the spyglass and scans the area. No disruptions in the flow of Rusakov particles that would signal the appearance of a portal. On the other hand..."The kids. They're doing something. And it's focused around the back half of the tent."

Henriette jumps out of the van and starts shoving her way through the crowd of strange, daemonless children. It isn't easy — she has to clear a path for her marmot daemon, and there are still kids here and there bumping into him anyway — the kind of accidental touch that in no way compares to a deliberate assault, but that still gives you a jolt. Carlos folds his arms around Isaña, wincing in sympathy.

At last she gets to the platform, which is strange-child-free, and casually but firmly turns the microphone away from the confused Scoutmaster. "Ladies, gentlemen, and other beings, I'm sorry to interrupt, but this is an emergency," she announces to the crowd. "Starting with the people in the back half of the tent, I'm going to need you to stand up and walk, do not run, away from the area. Any direction will work. Except the dog park, obviously."

Nobody moves until Earl calmly displaces the other Scoutmaster and takes the microphone back. "You heard the lady," he says firmly. "Theological emergency. The ceremony will resume when the danger is over. Everyone in the back half of the tent, stand up and proceed to the nearest non-dog-park-facing edge."

That's when the rumbling starts.

It's also when the mysterious children all go into motion at once.

"Children and adults with oversize daemons, to the platform!" shouts Earl over the shaking ground and the sudden commotion of hundreds of children swarming toward them from all corners of Night Vale. "Everyone else, head for the parking lot! Scouts working on your Sniper badges, take aim!"

Under the back half of the tent, the ground is starting to cave in. At last Carlos realizes what's going on. The portal here is opening up under the earth, creating a sinkhole through which layers of packed clay and sand are starting to fall.

"Get in!" he orders Köhler, waving the man and his binturong daemon backward into the van. "Can't let them get the machine, and your daemon's too big — go!"

Because the children whose arms aren't full already are grabbing things as they pass. Food, clothing, gadgets, appliances — Carlos slams the hatch of the van down after Köhler, puts a foot on the bumper, and throws himself and Isaña up onto the roof just in time to see one of them grab his chair. The two Dreadnought Scouts duck around to the lee side of the van and lean against it, which is good thinking, because strange children are starting to bump into the near side as the tide of people shoves them forward, and the last thing they want is the vehicle tipping over.

Beside him, Li Hua and Li Hua have their rifles out and ready. "If we have to shoot them, then can we get samples?" demands one.

"No shooting!" yells Carlos, over the thunderous noise of the cave-in, people screaming, and a few heart-wrenching gunshots. He has the spyglass out again, letting him see too much and too little all at once. "They're not evil, they're not a menace, they're just a bunch of scared kids!"

Too few people can hear him, and not enough of those would believe him if they could. They fight their way past the van through the onrush of shabbily-clad children, all driven by a torrent of survival instinct that shines in the flow of the Rusakov particles around them. A bunch of little thieves, not getting enough care in their own world, who have somehow organized this whole scheme to steal what they need en masse from others.

"Get people to come in the car, if you can," says Carlos to the Dreadnought Scouts. They should shield as many people as possible. And Henriette has the keys, so there's no reason to worry, as long as they don't usher in anyone with a Hotwiring Somebody Else's Car badge.

One of the tent posts collapses into the cave-in. The ground is pouring downward like sand in the top of an hourglass, like water going down a drain. Strange, daemonless magpie-children jump into it, sliding down the edges with their armfuls of loot.

Carlos swivels the spyglass around, trying to figure out if anyone else here can help fix this.

Earl, meanwhile, is still shouting directions. Under his guidance there are semicircles of Scouts of all ages shielding a few large daemons from being crashed into, and a row of older Scouts rolling back the half-collapsed tent, making sure everyone trapped underneath it — Night Vale citizens and daemonless children alike — gets safely out.

In an Asriel-emulsion photogram, the man's features would probably be hard to make out. Through the spyglass, where the brilliance of Rusakov particles enhances rather than obscures, he and his beaver daemon are awash in currents of loyalty and bravery, kindness and self-reliance. Carlos was never in scouting himself, and he sure doesn't have the ten or twelve particulars of the Boy Scout Law memorized, but he thinks he could derive them all independently by working backward from what he sees in those currents.

Cecil loves you, he thinks. Maybe not the way you wish he did, but he loves you. I'd stake my reputation — what's left of it, anyway — on that.

Isaña isn't getting all the details of his thoughts...which means she can see where he's looking and work out the rest without being distracted. "Li Hua! We need one of you to take the spyglass over to Earl Harlan. Tell him these are normal kids, and make him look through it at them!"

"This is the same Earl Harlan who threw punch in your face," says one of the Li Huas dubiously.

"Yes! That's why we're not doing it ourselves!"

"Köhler's daemon is too big to get there safely, and Henriette's already over there," adds Carlos. "Your daemons can fly. You're safest. Do it!"

Li Hua and Li Hua look at each other. "I handled the last thing," says one.

"Fine." The other holsters her rifle, wren daemon taking flight to soar around her head. "Cover me!"

Carlos hands her the spyglass, she hops down from the roof of the van, and they're off.

Restricted now to normal vision, he can see that the movement of the ground has slowed almost to nothing. The hole is twenty feet wide at the top, its edge so close that Carlos could almost jump there from here, sloping down and in toward a portal maybe six or seven feet below ground level. It's still making thunderous noises, but when another one rumbles up from the ground, he understands: those are literally thunder. The other world is in the middle of a storm.

His sense of perspective is all askew. He can see the top of the dirt pile that landed in the other world, children landing on it and sliding downwards toward the new ground level, and past that a grey blur: rain from another sky, landing in what might be a town or a city with cobblestone streets.

Li Hua has reached Earl. They talk. She shoves the much-abused cardboard-and-tape electrum spyglass into his hands, and he scans the scene.

The effect is immediate. "Hold your fire!" barks Earl into the mic, and amidst the yelling and the alternate-universe downpour, the gunshots stop. His beaver daemon's tail thwacks against the wooden platform. "Defensive moves only. Franklin, Barton, to me!"

Both not-quite-inducted Eternal Scouts seem to appear out of thin air: a tall boy with purple hair that may or may not be natural, his daemon a raccoon like Carlos's mother's, and a shorter one with hair shaved at the sides and a fluffy pile of dreads on top, daemon a red squirrel. Carlos has no idea which is Frankie and which is Barty. All four figures are wearing matching neckerchiefs, and that's probably what really counts here.

They take a fast set of directions from Earl, then the purple-haired one runs to the bloodstone circle on the platform and starts shooing people away from it, while the one with the squirrel clinging to his shoulder jumps to the ground and scoops one of the children into the air. The child (long-haired, no more than seven, gender impossible to guess) drops an armload of cereal boxes to kick and claw; the Scout holds it steady, lifting it up in front of Earl, who meets its gaze and holds the spyglass between them.

Of course the child can't understand him, but it stops struggling.

Carlos meanwhile is getting jostled as people pile into the van, and, when it fills up, has to help a couple of younger Scouts climb on top with him and Li Hua. In between he catches bits and pieces of the action on the platform: the whole group gathered in the bloodstone circle, Earl slashing a dagger across the back of his wrist, and then, somehow, the child chattering away at him and Earl nodding, asking questions, understanding.

Insta-translation spell? Carlos would love to know how well that works, and how long it lasts, and exactly how much blood sacrifice it reqiures.

Next thing he knows Earl is back at the mic, holding the mystery child balanced on one hip. "Defense only!" he repeats. "The visitors aren't trying to attack anyone. If possible, stay right where you are. Do not enter the portal — settled adults in particular! Their world has hooded spectres, and they are not bound to a dog park. Keep your distance!"

He leans to the side, and now the daemonless kid speaks into the microphone, in a lilting, musical language. The ongoing horde of children doesn't slow down right away, but it seems like there's less screaming.

Well, except from a strange, daemonless boy close to the van, who stares in horror at the stage before shrieking what sounds like a name and changing direction.

"Oh my god, are you hearing this?" breathes Li Hua.

"Which part?" asks Carlos. He's hearing a lot of things right now.

"He just called her Lucía. It's a goddamn Romance language!"

The child in Earl's arms, Lucía, is talking some more...and sure enough, Carlos thinks he can hear a familiar structure. Pronouns, subjects, verbs, objects: resonating with his Spanish, the small part he knows of French, the scattered bits and pieces of Italian. "Which one is it?"

"And she called him Renato." Li Hua is grinning like mad. "Who says it has to be one we know, huh? What if their world's language families paralleled ours for as long as people were speaking Roman, and then evolved down totally different paths? Why the hell don't we have a linguist on the team, huh?"

"Because all these native speakers are hopefully going to be gone in a couple of hours," says Carlos, "and no, you are not allowed to keep any!"

But he's already texting Henriette, over on the podium. Get recordings of the language. Rosetta Stone it if you can. A pack of phrases in Earl's Spanish plus the translations repeated in Lucía's language — either someone who speaks it will be able to identify it, or the whole thing will be giving their-world linguists fits.

Renato is at the podium now, arguing with Lucía. Lucía from the root meaning light, and Renato, like Renée, meaning reborn. Does the name have the same religious significance in these children's world? Do they have a Magisterium? What, if anything, is its position on Dust?

Now Carlos, too, is itching to seize the research opportunities.

"They're young! They're healthy! Probably last for years!" pleads Li Hua. "Grab a fourteen-year-old, if they make it to twenty-four that's outlasting most kids in Night Vale anyway...."

Ah, yes. That's the reason they're not doing it. "No. No. Absolutely not. Now hang on a minute while I call Josie."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

While the angels are en route, the hole out back of the Raúl's changes from a scene of chaos to a scene of steady work.

Earl gets a couple of assembly lines going from the Raúl's checkout to the edge of the hole passing items from one person to the next until the children at the end (it's all children close to the portal, a mix of unsettled Boy Scouts, their similarly-aged sisters, and a few of the strange, daemonless children) toss it through. With Lucía as interpreter, the older kids have been able to convey to Earl an overall sense of what they need, and apparently the Boy Scouts of Hispania Nova can pay.

Carlos is one of the adults closest to the end of the line, taking things from the Dreadnought Scout with the owl daemon and handing them to a strange, daemonless girl of twelve-ish. It's mostly food: nothing that needs refrigeration or extensive cooking, but lots of fresh and dried fruit, canned food, granola bars, high-preservative snacks, and bottles of vitamins. No wheat products, obviously; instead he hands along loaves of rye, rice, corn-, and potato bread. Non-nutritional products come through too: umbrellas, tissues, Ziploc bags.

Medicine and cleaning products don't come through the lines. Anything potentially hazardous, Earl assigns a specific strange child to carry a bag of, and drills them in its uses and dangers while escorting them to the edge of the hole in the ground.

Things are being pulled out of the portal back into this world, too. More than a few Night Vale citizens fell through when the ground first collapsed. Now the Scouts are working to pull them back out, using harness-and-pulley systems of their own to lower the younger ones down onto the pile of mud in the other world, daemons in bird-form fluttering around their heads.

"Living humans first, second, and third priority!" orders one of the other Scoutmasters. "No retrieving bodies until every single live person is back up here!"

To the teenage Dreadnought Scout with the lizard daemon, Carlos says, "We've got a safety harness in the van. Go ask Henriette if the Scouts over there can use it, then go tell the Scouts over there they can use it."

The Scout hesitates. "Uh...I dunno if we're really supposed to...."

"It's to help save your own people!" snaps Isaña from next to Carlos's feet. "You can afford to leave us under a reduced guard for five minutes. We are not going to horribly betray Night Vale by mishandling groceries!"

It gets the kid moving. Carlos shakes his head in frustration and passes another gallon of apple juice down the line.

The younger Scouts are just getting the experimental theologians' harness set up when something else comes floating up out of the portal.

Doesn't look like much at first. A shimmer in the air, no more substantial than the faintest of the angels — though where the angels shine, this presence distorts, oiling through the atmosphere like a slick of poison. The children, no matter what world they come from, don't seem to notice it at all.

The teenage Scouts do. "Scatter!" yells one, and then they're running in all non-dog-park-related directions, more than one of them shouting, "Scoutmaster Harlan!"

Carlos drops the bag of potatoes in his hands and scoops up Isaña. "Everyone who's settled, get back!" he exclaims, trying to drag the nearest Dreadnought Scout along with him. "Get to your cars. Go! It's a hooded spectre without the hood!"

Now everybody's panicking. Everyone, that is, except most of the strange, daemonless children. The younger ones look plenty frightened, some of them bursting into tears, but all the ones older than nine or ten just look worn-out and blank, like they've seen this so many times they've gone numb to it.

The spectre winds slowly through the air and aims for a couple of young Scouts who have just pulled a woman and her ferret daemon out of the portal. She has a bloody nose from the fall, and what must be a twisted ankle, because when she tries to run all she can manage is a hobble.

That's when Earl Harlan comes sprinting out of the retreating crowd.

He heads directly for the spectre, silvery daemon loping along at his heels faster than Carlos had realized beavers could run. Not to throw away their own lives — at least, not if they can help it — but to skid to a stop a few feet away, closer to the malevolent shimmer than the woman with the ferret, close enough to draw its attention away from her.

In between shooing back the people who have just come out of the Raúl's and want to see what all the fuss is about, Carlos watches as Earl draws the spectre away from the portal. Away from most of the people, too. Toward the dog park? No, toward the podium — toward the bloodstone circle.

What did Cecil ever see in Carlos that he doesn't see in this man? Goddamn.

The spectre is fast. Earl and his daemon are only barely faster. It's nearly on them as they step backward into the ring of bloodstones, where Earl grabs the discarded dagger from his last little magic trick and slices three quick lines into his forearm before starting to chant.

Is it a bad sign that Carlos can identify half-heard Modified Sumerian more quickly than he can spot a Romance language?

For a moment he's deathly afraid that the whole thing is going to be just as effective as Mateo's attempted exorcism. But then. But then the spectre staggers — if a floating being can be accurately said to stagger — and out of nowhere a dark hooded cloak ripples into existence, falling over its form to brush against the ground.

Newly-hooded, the spectre wavers back and forth a bit, as if confused. Then it starts to drift aimlessly in the direction of the dog park.

Earl sinks to his knees and hugs his daemon, looking exhausted. When the sobbing young Lucía runs over and clambers up onto the platform, though, he has the energy to pull her into a hug and tell her that it's all right, he's okay, it didn't get him.

What relief Carlos feels is short-lived. A second un-hooded spectre chooses that moment to slink up out of the portal.

"Is that —?" asks Isaña, squinting at the hole in the ground.

"Another one," confirms Carlos. "Can't see the other Scoutmasters anywhere. Or the Eternal Scouts."

"Ready to run if you are," says his daemon.

So without giving himself time to stop and second-guess the frankly-insane decision he's making, Carlos drops her to the ground and they both take off.

About halfway between the podium and the hole, they attract this spectre's attention. Carlos and Isaña come to a stop between two rows of scattered chairs, where the wind has flung a spray of purple napkins from the refreshment table across the damp grass. "That's right, come and get me!" he yells, as it starts to drift toward him. "I pay attention, I overthink, and I get excited about everything. I'll be delicious!"

"Please say you can do the thing twice, Earl!" adds Isaña as they both scramble to get to the podium.

It all would have worked perfectly if Carlos's foot hadn't landed the wrong way in somebody's spilled coffee.

He slips in the mud — goes down — skids face-first across the ground as static buzzes in his ears. He tries to drag himself on hands and knees, but the cold chill is creeping up behind him, too fast. Isaña is almost nine feet ahead of him, unable to go any farther, calling his name.

So this is how it ends. They're going to leave a scraped-up corpse in a grass-stained chapel coat. At least if they managed to lure the spectre into a trap in the process, it'll have been worthwhile....

...A brilliant black beam of light shines down out of the cloudy sky, and the cold fades away.

It dims quickly, leaving no sign of spectres hooded or un-hooded, just two translucent shimmering Erikas descending from the sky. "The portal must be closed," announces one, in ringing Spanish.

The other nods. "We will keep the spectres down. But the portal must be closed now."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Lucía is attached to Earl's side like she's been hot-glued there, so Renato, the boy who appears to be her brother, interprets the directions she gets from Earl and relates them into the microphone. Shopping time is over. The strange daemonless children who are still in Night Vale gather up the food that had been discarded when the line broke down, and begin a careful climb down the earthy slope that leads to their own world.

A couple of young (and unsettled) Blood Pact Scouts hang around the platform, waiting for directions. Earl talks one of them through the process of bandaging his cut-up arm. Turns out it counts toward the Field Medicine patch.

Above them, the angels stand guard.

Carlos drags himself the rest of the way over to the platform, mostly so he can have something to lean against while he catches his breath and clings to his daemon. A throat-clearing behind him makes him sit up with a start; Earl is standing there, holding the spyglass in the hand not supporting Lucía. "I understand this is yours."

"Y-yeah." When Earl hands it down to him, Carlos slips it back into his pocket. "Thanks."

If Earl wanted to say anything else, it gets interrupted by the sudden reappearance of Franklin and Barton. They're both spattered with blood and some kind of green ichor, their daemons' fur matted with it, and the tall guy with the purple hair is favoring one leg because the other looks torn-up by gigantic claw marks. Also, their arms are full.

"Got the library books you wanted, Scoutmaster," announces the average-height Scout with the darker skin.

"Well done." Earl turns to the young Blood Pact Scouts. "You guys, run into the Raúl's and get some plastic bags. Enough to put around all of these."

As they scurry off, he starts rummaging around in the podium...and comes up with a couple of pins. Violet ribbons with the obsidian figure of a hawk hanging from the end, holding an infinity sign carved out of some metal so white it seems to glow. His beaver daemon takes out two matching pins, sized to fit perfectly on a the boys' daemons' neckerchiefs.

Okay, now they're Eternal Scouts.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos reconnects with Henriette and Köhler at the van, where they interrogate him about how okay he feels after coming within arm's length of being spectre chow. Li Hua and Li Hua finally get Henriette's permission to take biological samples from the strange, daemonless children who were fatally injured in the earlier chaos, and run eagerly off to negotiate with the nearest ambulance.

It's still pouring, there in the other world. Thunder rolls and reverberates from underneath them.

The last handful of surviving children clamber down the slope of dirt toward the portal. They leap from the dry earth of this world to the sloppy mountain of mud in the other one, and skid down with horrified and/or delighted shrieks toward the cobblestone pavement below. It looks like some kind of courtyard down there. The erosion on one side of the mud pile has uncovered a half-buried arm and face, which at first Carlos took for human, but which he can see now are part of a bronze statue.

Half a dozen of this group are holding the plastic-covered books in their arms. From what Carlos could tell of the spines, those books are Spanish-language and very technical. He has no idea what Earl hopes to get by sending them into the other world with non-Spanish-speaking children (or why Earl would risk having to pay the overdue fines, which the librarians take mostly in severed body parts).

Until, a quarter-turn around the edge of the hole, Earl himself starts making his careful way down the slope.

The man is just landing in the mud when Carlos realizes what's happening. "What — hey — Earl, stop!" he yells over the storm.

His team's harness is still out. Carlos slings it over his shoulders, not even taking the time to do up all the buckles, and scrambles to follow as far as he can. They don't dare risk Isaña slipping and falling into that other world, so she stands at the very edge of the hole in the ground, while Carlos eases himself all the way down to the rim of the window.

Earl watches him from across the mudpile: still in the same universe as Carlos, but only from the knees up. "Don't do this," calls Carlos. "Come on back. I'll help you up."

"These kids need me," says Earl sharply. Lucía, who climbed down along with him, is clinging to his leg. Rain from another sky falls on his shoes, on her too-large pants with the cuffs trailing in the mud, on the silver fur of his daemon.

"You can't stay in their world. You'll die!"

"I'll take that chance!"

"It's not a chance!" cries Carlos. "This is solid, evidence-based theology! People can't live in other worlds long-term. It does...complicated technical things...to your DNA. You can do everything else right, but just being there will kill you!"

That, at last, makes Earl pause. "How long would I have?"

"Our best estimate? Ten years at most."

The Scoutmaster's hesitation melts away. "That's more than enough," he says, stroking Lucía's tangled hair. "Not to fix everything — we were never going to fix everything — but to make a good start."

"Can't you just...establish a dog park real quick, and come right back? Or show the kids how to do it themselves?"

"It's not that simple!" exclaims Earl. "It's not just this city full of spectres, Carlos. It's their planet. Not bad enough to wipe out the whole population before they can reproduce, but bad enough that the adults are trapped in barricaded fortresses. They can't farm, mine, invent, study — their practical knowledge is all but gone, and they're losing the theory, too. The children have no teachers. They regularly lose parents. They survive by running wild in the cities, scavenging from other worlds when they can reach us, and cannibalizing what's left of their old society when they can't. Even with a couple of good binding spells, when they start to have cities that are safe to grow up in, they'll still need guidance! Goals and values. A social structure they can lean on, to learn how to grow up."

In a word...this world is going to need Scouting.

Swallowing hard, Carlos digs into his pocket. "Then — take this with you."

Earl catches the spyglass when tossed, and looks between it and Carlos in shock. "What? This is yours! And it's valuable. You'll need it too!"

"We have another six plates of that back in the chapel, and as long as the Whispering Forest doesn't go anywhere, we can always make more!" counters Carlos. "And you're never going to pull this off unless you have some way of knowing who to trust — and some way of letting people know they can trust you. The electrum plates are the important part, understand? The cardboard and tape is just cardboard and tape."

Otherworldly wind lashes the rain against Earl's knees. "I — I understand."

Franklin and Barton choose that moment to levitate down through the portal. Carlos is getting used to their sudden dis- and reappearances, but the floating is new, as is the way their eyes (and their daemons') are glowing a soft white.

Judging by his expression, this is new to Earl too. "What have you two become?" he asks, with such quiet wonder that the storm nearly swallows it.

"No idea," says one of the boys. Carlos still doesn't know if this one is Frankie or Barty.

"But," says the other, "we're coming with you to find out."

Erika and Erika sink down into the other world alongside the humans. At least when it comes to them, seeing their ten-foot-tall winged insubstantial forms float around is just another Wednesday. "We are closing the portal," announces one. "Last call."

So down go Franklin, Barton, Lucía, and Earl: the former two gliding with eldritch grace, the latter two getting absolutely filthy. When Earl is low enough that everything but his head is getting rained on, he turns to Carlos one last time. "You take care of this town, you hear me?" he orders. "This town, this whole world — Cecil said it needs you, and — and Cecil doesn't get things like that wrong!"

Carlos nods. He doesn't have to make Earl say more. They understand each other. "I will!"

The angels start at the point across the circle from him and run their fingers along the edge in opposite directions, pinching it shut bit by bit, so the closing of the window happens in an arc like a full moon waning. At last its final sliver seals shut, and Carlos is sitting at the edge of a perfectly flat, perfectly circular plane of old familiar Night Vale dirt.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Before the experimental theologians depart from what remains of the Eternal Scout ceremony, a handful of Night Vale citizens approach Carlos: mostly adults, plus a few of the Scouts and other teens or children. They say things like "That was awful brave, what you did out there" and "guess I haven't been treating you fair, lately" and "you know, I bet this whole prophecy is a load of bunk — I don't like to speak ill of the missing-and-presumed-dead, but Cecil's mamá, she was always a few bloodstones short of a circle, if you know what I mean."

The two teenage Dreadnought Scouts who had been standing guard over Carlos even present him with a box of bagged lingonberry tea, freshly purchased from the Raúl's. "We tested all the brands when we got our Exorcising Unholy Influence badges," explains one. "This is the best."

He hasn't re-won the majority of local hearts and minds, not by a long shot, but it's more than enough to give him a warm hopeful feeling. The tide is turning. No matter how much animosity people hold towards Carlos the Prophesied Traitor, that public image doesn't have to last forever; over time he can go back to being plain old Carlos the (Occasionally-Heroic) Experimental Theologian.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Hope nobody minds if we make a detour," says Henriette, as they're ostensibly driving back to the chapel. She's in the driver's seat this time, with her marmot daemon riding shotgun. (Figuratively. In contrast to the Li Huas' wren daemons, who are literally riding shotguns.) "I need to pick a few things up."

Mid-sentence, she switches on the signal-jamming device hidden in the dashboard snowman.

One of the Li Huas pulls out her phone to double-check. "Just dropped out of the service area," she reports. "You're good."

"Fantastic." Henriette takes the on-ramp to the highway that loops town. "Now that the latest mini-crisis is officially passed...we have got to step back and talk about this electrum phenomenon."

"You mean, to figure out what experiments we're going to prioritize?" Carlos isn't sure why they need to duck out of secret-police supervision to talk about that, but it's certainly worth discussing. He can think of dozens of different applications, even more if they want to start testing these lenses as components of more complicated machinery, and they'll never be able to produce enough to do everything at once.

"I mean, to figure out what it means for humanity!" exclaims Henriette. "Carlos, you looked through it the most — how much detail could you see? From everything I've heard about the Whispering Forest, you would never want some random bystander to be able to have that kind of emotionally-invasive insight into your psyche. How does this compare?"

Oh. "Nowhere close to that," Carlos assures her. "All I ever saw was a...general impression of a person's intentions at the time. Take Earl — he was being sort of, hmm, protective, almost constantly. But I couldn't have told you from the Rusakov currents if he was aiming to protect everyone in town, or just his own Scouts, or the children in general, or what."

"This sounds reasonable," says Köhler. "For anyone who has nothing to hide, I can see no reason to object."

Every other human in the car sighs.

Köhler, to his credit, seems skeptical but willing to listen. "You believe there is a flaw in this logic?"

"Well, obviously we believe there's a flaw," says the Li Hua next to Carlos. "You guys have come around to seeing us as valuable team members, and in a town like this we're pretty damn valuable, but even you would've been put off if you had known from the start that we...you know...."

"Enjoy disemboweling more than is generally socially acceptable?" fills in Henriette.

"Have a hard time making emotional distinctions between the loss of a colleague and the loss of a useful appliance?" adds Carlos.

(The currents of intention generated by the Li Huas weren't quite that specific, at least to Carlos's eyes, but he was still unnerved by what he could make out. There's a well-controlled ferocity guiding the Rusakov particles around them, and their lack of empathy shows up as an eerie dullness.)

"Exactly!" exclaims the Li Hua behind him. "And you know, as long as we're not shooting anyone, I don't understand why anyone should care how much effort we're putting into not shooting anyone. But you know people would care, and then we'd get all kinds of harassment over it."

There's an uncomfortable silence while the rest of them weigh the pros and cons of being around armed Li Huas versus being around Li Huas annoyed at having been disarmed.

"To take a more...conventional example," says Henriette's marmot daemon, "you wouldn't want some kind of mob boss or terrorist leader to get their hands on one, and be able to instantly spot something like an undercover police officer in their midst. And on the flip side — Carlos, you wouldn't want the Sheriff's secret police using these to spy on your friend Steve."

"He'd never be able to stand up to them again," says Carlos, getting the idea. "They'd pre-emptively grab him the moment he started working on something."

"And more: abusers and predators try to target people who are vulnerable," adds Henriette. "Imagine if they could head down to the local bar, or stand up in front of a class, or whatever, with a tool that let them instantly spot the most insecure, self-effacing, affirmation-seeking person in the room."

"Not to mention, sometimes you're angry at someone for, let's say, non-sociopathic reasons," says Isaña, "but for diplomatic purposes, you need them to believe you're sincerely considering their advice that you aim a little lower than Stanford, and yes, you certainly will keep in mind that master's programs in physics are hard."

One of the wren daemons hops onto the back of the seat next to Carlos's shoulder. "This anecdote had better end with you going to Stanford."

Isaña shakes her head. "This anecdote ends with us getting accepted to Stanford, deciding we wanted to stay in-state, and turning it down to go to MIT."

"All of these scenarios have their positive counterparts," protests Köhler. "Police departments could identify corrupt officials at a glance. People seeking partners could avoid those with cruel intentions. Academic institutions could discover which staff members did not have students' best interests in mind."

"Which sort of relates back to Li Hua's problem," says Henriette. "Even if a person has bad intentions, that doesn't mean it's directing their behavior. Plenty of people can avoid acting on their worse natures. I'm not saying I've seriously wanted to strangle a particularly aggravating student, but...."

"It is also important to remember that these items cannot be mass-produced. The potential for distribution is limited."

In the rear-view mirror, Carlos catches Henriette's grimace. "As long as we're the only ones who know how to make them. What if some corporation, with the resources to spin this thing out of control, decides to strong-arm its way into town and go all Once-ler on the Whispering Forest?"

This time the silence is just confused.

"You must explain this reference," says Köhler at last.

"Really? The Once-ler. From The Lorax. Chops down all the Truffula trees to make a profit...? Have none of you had small children in your lives in the past forty years? Carlos and Li Hua, you were small children within the past forty years!"

"We weren't big readers," says the Li Hua next to Carlos. Past her head, the other side of the road rushes by, with the endless flat plains of the sand wastes behind it.

"Half of my picture books were in Spanish," says Carlos, "and the English ones were a mix of Bible stories, Lyra-and-Pan stories, and this one series about the discoveries of various experimental theologians and their cartoon sidekicks."

(Stanislaus Grumman had a talking cartoon sun. Galileo's story involved a smiley-faced telescope. Rusakov came with a chubby little angel, and a whole lot of retconning of how well the Magisterium had taken his initial reports about Dust. All of them had a fair amount of Magisterium retconning, frankly.)

"But I see what you mean. Our control of the supply puts a check on a lot of potential abuses, so how do we keep it like that?"

"My vote: flagrant lying," says the Li Hua behind him. "As far as anyone outside town has to know, one afternoon the lenses fell out of a portal next to us. Lucky us! But hey, after all the vicious prehistoric lizards, creepy daemonless children, and so on, it was high time one of these parallel universes gave us something useful."

As an experimental theologian, a seeker and a lover of truth, Carlos is dismayed. As a lifelong Lyra-and-Pan fan, he says, "Flagrant lying sounds like a useful strategy."

"And we must restrict any distribution to recipients we trust," adds Köhler. "Ideally, to groups or institutions, whose members will be able to review and check each other. I suggest we consider universities in possession of alethiometers first. They have long experience developing the sort of policies and restrictions we will need to insist on."

"If you ask me, they can get a little too restrictive." Wouldn't it be an irony if Oxford and Heidelberg, both of which denied Carlos's applications to study their alethiometers, came up with policies that would also rule out letting someone like Carlos study a tool he gave them in the first place.

"Perhaps at times they err on the side of caution. This is at least safer than deciding to give a man permanent custody of an electrum spyglass based on less than an hour of interaction."

"I didn't exactly have a lot of time to work with!" protests Carlos. "Besides, if you'd seen the kind of currents Earl was generating in the Rusakov particles...he's trustworthy, I swear."

"And if your judgment was wrong, it is not our world that will suffer."

Carlos winces. He still doesn't think it was wrong to trust Earl, but...well, in short, he's glad he hasn't been prophesied to horribly betray the world of the strange, daemonless children. "I will grant you that we should probably have some kind of approvals process in place next time."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

So they have a tentative plan for dealing with entities outside of Night Vale. There's still the question of how to deal with the forces already here. The Sheriff's secret police did not react kindly to Asriel-emulsion photograms revealing their hiding places; no way are they going to approve of an instrument that can observe their hideouts in realtime.

"It's only going to get worse if we try to keep it secret and they find out," says Henriette, still cruising around the highway as the clouds disperse and the sun beats down on the flat horizon. The road is mostly empty, as usual, though they can hear gyropters going by overhead. "We'll just have to confront this one head-on. Stand in the front yard, yell for the nearest officer, and say we want to make a deal. I'm sure there'll end up being some kind of blood oath we can take to swear we won't use any electrum spyglasses against them."

Much as Carlos hates it, she's making sense. "They let Cecil have free rein with the alethiometer, so there's precedent," he says hopefully. "All right. But let me have a couple mugs of tea first?"

"Sure," says Henriette. "But why?"

"Because even if they agree to work with us, they'll probably drag me through another round of re-education first just to make a point. I'd like to at least feel as good as possible before going in."

"Oh, no you don't. You're not going anywhere. If they drag anyone in for re-education, it's going to be me."

Carlos does a double-take. "What? No!"

"I'm running the project now, remember? That doesn't just mean for the fun parts. It means I'm the one who volunteers for things like this, not you."

Why did Carlos ever let himself think he wouldn't regret putting Henriette in charge? "Yes, but — but you should delegate! With something like this — I've been through it already, I might as well, it doesn't make any mathematical sense to let us both have the nightmares —"

"Carlos, I already have nightmares," says Henriette dryly. "Don't know if you remember, but there was this one time I watched myself get shot through the heart and die right next to me? And one time Fleur called me in a panic because you and Brad had both vanished, and another morning I woke up and Dotan was missing, and in both cases I spent hours waiting to get the news that someone was dead? And there was this whole thing with some really terrifying snakes —"

"I take your point!" exclaims Carlos, sinking back in his chair while Isaña leans against his stomach. He has to speak up; the gyropters are awfully close to them now, and it's getting loud. "But I want it on the record that I don't —"

Köhler interrupts. "We are being followed."

Sure enough, a moment later the noise is deafening, and one of the blue gyropters sinks into view outside Carlos's window — huge and close, thwock-thwock-thwocking along beside them like a wasp bobbing next to a flower. Both Li Huas dive for the floor, as do Isaña and the other daemons.

"Somebody tell them we surrender while I concentrate on not hitting any of them!" yells Henriette.

Hands clapped over his ears, Carlos hits the button to roll down the window with his elbow. It's not like the glass would have lasted long if bullets started flying anyway. "¡Nos rendimos, nos rendimos!"

A secret police officer throws open the door and aims a megaphone at them. "Pull over and come out with your hands up!"

By some miracle they get the van slowed to a stop without any collisions, and hopefully without any lasting hearing damage. Henriette casually knocks the dashboard snowman to the floor, where it rolls under the seat and Isaña switches it off. Two gyropters land, spitting out black-clad officers who proceed to flank them, while two more retreat to hover at a less deafening distance above, covering the scene from the air.

"Is something wrong, officers?" asks Henriette, as the experimental theologians step out of the nice air-conditioned car and line up on the hot sand.

"You tell us," says one officer, a broad-shouldered man with a long-legged bird daemon. "Where exactly were you folks headed?"

"Liquor store," says Henriette.

The man looks taken-aback, then re-summons his air of derisive suspicion. "A likely story. You've been on the highway much too long for a short trip like that."

Henriette shrugs. "We missed our exit."

"Three times?"

"It's been a distracting day, all right?"

"And it's just a coincidence that, when we surrounded you, you were headed in the exact direction...of Desert Bluffs?"

"We're on a highway that makes a loop!" protests Carlos. "It heads in every direction at some point. Including some that shouldn't be physically possible!"

The officer grunts in disapproval. "Search them," he orders the others.

"Dibs on patting down the hot one," says a woman to his left.

"He's the one we're really worried about, right?" adds another. "Should probably pat him down more than once, just to be safe."

Carlos's face heats up in a way that has nothing to do with the desert sun.

One of the Li Huas comes to his rescue, putting an imaginary phone to her ear. "¿Hola, Cecil? You will never guess what happened to Carlos today...."

(An experimental theologian is supposed to be self-reliant, but an experimental theologian also knows when to appreciate the value of team support.)

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

A series of non-invasive pat-downs turns up nothing. A search of the van also turns up nothing — they don't understand the Gaillard Compass, but thankfully conclude that it isn't a threat. The little handmade craft snowman slips right by them.

"Looks like you get to walk away...this time," says the officer in charge. "Now, you're going to drive back into town where you belong, and there's going to be a nice friendly police escort following along behind, to make sure you don't miss your exit again."

Henriette takes a deep breath. "Actually, as long as you're already here...."

The police look thrilled that they get to drag at least one person off in a gyropter that day. Henriette isn't hit with a knockout dart first, just slapped in handcuffs. Köhler's binturong daemon rests a paw on Isaña's back, a support and a warning, for her and Carlos to hang quietly back and watch it happen.

One of the Li Huas drives the van back to the chapel, where they're delighted to find a freshly-delivered frozen corpse waiting for them to dissect. Köhler takes care of calling Cecil to explain that they'll want a heads-up if Henriette gets dumped somewhere in the middle of the scrublands that night.

For his part, Carlos throws himself into personally checking over every inch of the Gaillard Compass to make sure none of their their painstakingly hand-soldered connections or amateur insulation jobs have been compromised by the long day and the car chase. When he's patched it all back into top working condition, he moves on to making another (and, this time, sturdier) electrum spyglass.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

All four team members split the night into shifts, one person staying awake at all times, ready to help at whatever hour Henriette gets back.

She doesn't return the first night.

Nor does she reappear during the day that follows. Carlos tries to put it out of his mind and focus on the call with a linguistic expert from Harvard, who reports that the language of the strange daemonless children is mutually intelligible with Sardinian, but has an accent and some vocabulary words that don't correspond to any known dialect. Her department is very excited about this. Does Carlos's team have any more samples? Any at all? Please?

They don't, but Carlos makes a note to himself to ask (with Henriette's approval) for some recordings of Hiram McDaniels' native language(s). One of the dragon's heads only speaks in what Carlos assumes is a tongue from his own world, while the other four are fluent in Spanish, but all have different accents.

Maybe they should get a linguist or two out here. Once they start needing to replace the upcoming fall arrivals, they'll have to think about it.

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Carlos has just started his turn on watch that night, sitting up in the living room with Isaña and a mug of coffee watching an episode of the Lyra-and-Pan cartoon, when the doorbell rings.

"Hey there," says Steve Carlsberg, standing on his front steps. "I've got your colleague in the car. She doesn't have any serious injuries, but they dosed her with something strong, and she's really loopy. Help me get her inside."

Steve's back seat is littered with the detritus of the soccer dad: a nearly-empty bottle of Gatorade, a child-size softball glove, a plastic bag full of gum and granola bar wrappers, a scattered pack of Uno cards. Henriette is playing with a blue 4 and a wildcard, flicking their corners past each other. She grins sleepily up at Carlos and shows him the wild. "It can be all the colors. It's like magic."

"It sure is," says Carlos in English. "C'mon, get unbuckled so we can get you to bed, okay?"

The buckle proves too much for Henriette right now, so she pushes her daemon's head off her lap so Carlos can reach it safely. He and Steve get her arms over their shoulders, while Isaña and Taeminlahn walk on either side of the marmot to keep him from wandering too far off track. Both the armadillo and the badger are smaller than he is. Carlos really hopes he doesn't fall on either of them.

"You're pretty," Henriette informs Carlos, head resting on his shoulder. "Your hair's real pretty. Wavy fluffs. Like a...like cocker spaniel ears."

"Uh, thanks," says Carlos. "And thank you too," he adds in Spanish to the Faceless Old Woman, who's holding the front door open for them. To Steve, he says, "Is there any treatment, or does she just need to sleep it off? And are there going to be side effects during withdrawal?"

"Sweating and tremors, mostly," says Steve. "Make sure she stays hydrated. And time is going to be a little foggy for a while — foggier than it usually is, I mean — so if there's anything time-sensitive she has to do, like taking medications or getting to a PTA meeting, it'll help if someone gets the details so they can give her reminders. Ideally you would have set that up before she got drugged."

Carlos grimaces. "We'll be better-prepared next time."

They get Henriette to her room, the bed against one wall with her daemon's basket beside it. Moonlight pours through the window onto the mattress. "That thing is staring at us," complains Henriette, sitting and leaning on Carlos while Steve gets her shoes off.

"Mmhmm," says Carlos. "Let's talk about it tomorrow, okay? Get some rest now."

They help her lie down, and Carlos tucks the sheet over her against the light chill of the desert night. Henriette gets quickly distracted by the moonlight on the wall next to her: she waves one hand through the air and gazes in wonder at the shadows. "The wall's saying hi."

"Sure is," says Carlos placatingly. "Good night, Henriette."

She closes her eyes, and they seem to be staying closed as Carlos and Steve back out of the room and close the door. Carlos slumps briefly against the wall, letting out a heavy sigh. One thing to be slightly less worried about.

"You have no idea how much we appreciate this," he tells Steve, back in Spanish. "Can we get you a drink or something before you go?"

"Something with caffeine would be great if you've got it."

They make their way downstairs in the dark, only switching on a light when they get to the kitchen.

"But if you're going to appreciate anyone here...Cecil's the one who sent me."

Carlos goes quiet. He puts on another pot of coffee without responding.

"Look, I get why you'd be upset," continues Steve, taking a chair and scooping his badger daemon into his lap. "Cecil did kind of drop a bomb on you without warning. He can be amazingly tactless sometimes. And he's nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. And the nervous breakdown he was having the whole week after you yelled at him was frankly embarrassing. But for some reason, even though the man is a hot mess, I had the impression you had come around to being friends with him anyway."

He lets the silence hang in the air until the least awkward thing for Carlos to do is answer. "I had."

"And you have to realize that he doesn't just hang around you in the hopes that one day you'll finally see the light and jump into bed with him. Your friendship is important to him. You are important to him."

Carlos hangs his head; Isaña leans against his foot. Yes, they know.

"So don't keep shutting him out. It's not fair. He doesn't deserve this! He can be a mature adult about the fact that you aren't into him, but it's killing him to think you never want to speak to him again."

"Of course I —" blurts Carlos, stopping mid-sentence because he isn't sure how it was going to end. His chest feels tight. "Do you honestly think I'd be this broken-up about what he said if I wasn't — if I didn't have — if I —"

He leans against the counter, heart pounding. The drizzle of the coffee pot suddenly sounds very loud.

"Oh," says Steve.

Pulling off his glasses, Carlos massages his forehead against an oncoming headache. No more caffeine for him tonight. "If you don't mind...I'd rather you didn't...."

Steve holds up his hands. "Nobody's going to hear about this from me. Or from the secret-police officer currently on duty, if Terrell knows what's good for him." He throws a meaningful glare at the kitchen window. "But there's someone who really, really deserves to hear it from you."

"If Cecil wants us to talk, then Cecil can make a little effort and be the one who does the reaching-out for once," says Carlos stubbornly. "Feel free to tell him that."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

He's the last one to wake up the next morning, which means he's the last one to see the new set of secret-police gyropters parked on their front lawn.

"Stop me if this is a stupid question," he says, joining the rest of them in the slightly crowded kitchen, "but is there a reason we aren't panicking?"

"They're not here to lock us up, they're just here to escort us to some kind of blood-oath loyalty ceremony," says one of the Li Huas from over a bacon-and-spinach omelette. "And we're supposed to all relax and eat a good high-protein breakfast first."

"I will make you an omelette," adds Köhler from the stove. "Come here and choose your favorite fillings."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Dramatic as the ceremony sounds, the police gyropters just fly the team to Night Vale General. And yeah, they get escorted into a room with flaming lanterns placed around the black walls, columns and rafters that appear to be made of human bone, and a massive bloodstone circle with some kind of altar in the center...but it also has ordinary blood-drawing equipment, medical personnel with white coats and sterile gloves over their ceremonial robes, and five lounging padded seats that could have come from a Red Cross donation center.

A doctor with round features and a football-octopus daemon (in a wheeled tank of water that rolls along beside her, a few tentacles hanging lazily over the edges) shakes their hands, then passes a sheet of paper to each of them. "Nice to meet you all. I'm Janice Rio, and I'll be supervising your ritual bloodletting today. Please take a seat and thoroughly read this list of conditions that might complicate your blood withdrawal, and, if you have one or more of them, do the medically appropriate thing and panic."

The list is in Spanish, and even Henriette is pretty shaky with most of these technical terms, so Carlos has to translate for everyone. The results seem non-panic-worthy. None of them have hemophilia; none of them are on any kind of blood-thinning medication; none of them have had heart surgery in the past six months.

Henriette is pretty shaky in general, too. She's not rambling any more, but she moves like a person half-asleep, and has a hard time keeping track of what's going on. "This isn't more re-education, is it?" she asks Carlos in a low voice while the nurses are busy setting up.

"No. It's okay, you're safely out of there. This is something else."

"And I...I told you about my hormones. Did I remember...?"

"You took one this morning, yes. And we'll remind you about the one in the evening. Nothing to worry about."

"It's a standard object-based loyalty oath," the police officer in charge explains to Dr. Rio, as a nurse rolls up the sleeve of Carlos's chapel coat to swab down his arm. "We have an approved English translation for the ones whose understanding might be compromised in Spanish, and we'll be handling all the requisite Modified Sumerian."

"Sounds straightforward. What's the object?"

"Can't say I understand it myself," says the officer, scratching the back of his neck under the balaclava. His daemon is something small and furry, riding on his shoulder. "But it's this."

He produces the latest electrum spyglass. Carlos jumps (earning a scolding from the nurse). When did they get that?

"Ordinarily we'd just go ahead and confiscate it, then maybe throw all the perpetrators in permanent lockup for safety's sake, but, well, something to do with prophecy."

"Ain't that always the way," sighs Dr. Rio. Her octopus daemon nods, sloshing the water in his tank.

She takes the spyglass and sets it on the altar in the middle of the bloodstone circle. The nurse holds a needle against Carlos's arm, lines it up with the vein, and slides it in with a light jab. Another one presses an open mini-bottle of apple juice into his free hand. "If you want more, or if you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, just chant for a refill."

They all get another sheet of paper to read while their blood drains, this one with the text of what they're going to swear. It looks remarkably simple, neither creepy and eldritch nor full of intimidating legalese.

Carlos trades a look with Isaña, curled up in his lap, then says, "Excuse me? Someone? I have a question...if this is effective, is there any theological reason why I can't change mine to say I won't use anything against the best interests of Night Vale and the Sheriff's secret police?"

Dr. Rio raises her eyebrows. "Are you aware of how much blood is there in your body, Dr. Perfecto?"

"Um...."

"For his size and weight? Around five liters," offers a Li Hua.

"Really, that much? Huh." The doctor shrugs. "Well, the oath requires a third of a liter to cover one type of object. So it sounds like you could cover fifteen types of objects at the most. And there are at least nine hundred and seven types of objects you could do serious damage with! You could certainly try to make a long-term project of it...but if I were you, I wouldn't bother."

They all finish having their blood drawn at different rates, and have to wait for the others to finish up. One of the Li Huas tries to do the chant to refill her apple juice (and gets guava, which she decides is close enough).

After that, it's finally time for the ritual: standing around the bloodstone circle, swaying along with the Modified Sumerian, each drawing an X in blood on the altar (they all got their own sets of sterile gloves, which was nice) before pouring the rest of the blood out onto it, making their solemn promises to do no harm to Night Vale with the object it holds. Dr. Rio gives the spyglass back to Carlos in the end, along with a handy information sheet reminding them to drink lots of water and not skip meals, and no driving or strenuous blood magic for the next twenty-four hours.

Köhler has a hard time not showing how unnerved he is by the whole thing. Li Hua and Li Hua, by contrast, almost seem more comfortable with blood all over the place than without. Henriette just looks tired, and resigned to following along with whatever happens next.

Carlos, meanwhile, really wishes he could watch a ritual like this through the spyglass, and take a whole bunch of Rusakov readings too, and he's just itching to do some tests on that altar to figure out how a material that appears to be solid stone also appears to be absorbent. If he asks nicely enough, will the hospital let him come back and observe the next one?

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

"Just remember," says Henriette to Carlos and Köhler, "act normal."

Easier said than done...but Carlos sits up straighter, gives Isaña a reassuring squeeze between his ankles, and waits for the videoconference call to connect.

At last a set of slightly-pixelated faces appear on the screen, against the backdrop of a warm, old-fashioned conference room. The Director of Graduate Studies for Applied Physics; the co-heads of the Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics department; a representative of the Department of Defense's Theology and Engineering Faculty Fellowship program; a grant manager from the Lyall & Cole Foundation; a grant manager from the university itself; the Deans of both the School of Engineering and Applied Theology and the School of Arts and Experimental Theology (SEAT and SAET, respectively); and a senior manager from the Harvard publicity department.

(It took a lot of schedule-juggling to get all these people together. Carlos said a prayer in the chapel bloodstone circle this morning for the Internet to stay up until they finish.)

"It's good to see you again, Carlos, Henriette," says one of the A/M/O Physics heads. "And good to speak to you for the first time, Dr. Köhler. Before anything else, please accept our sincere condolences for the losses of your colleagues."

Carlos nods. They haven't shared the whole prophecy debacle with their colleagues back home, so as far as these people are concerned, he's still the chief voice of the project. "We appreciate it."

"Is Dr. Dirac there with you?" adds the SAET Dean. "I was hoping to speak to her."

"I regret to tell you that, a few weeks ago, Dr. Dirac left our group to set up a long-term home in the forest," says Carlos. "If you like, we'll be happy to pass on a message."

The eminent professionals frown. "What do you mean, forest?" asks the SEAT Dean. "Aren't you in the middle of the desert?"

Carlos shrugs. "We don't understand it either. And even if we did, I'm not sure I would be competent to explain it. I don't study plants, you know."

At last they manage to work their way past the awkwardness and get to the meat of the call, which is: the team's combination FU-meter and portal-compass is an astounding theological breakthrough. The patent is filed, and someone from legal is making sure it gets fast-tracked; the SEAT is ready to divert time and resources toward building a whole set of them, with much finer precision, once Henriette and Carlos sign them the rights; the DoD wants to commission at least three for its research in the Arctic, and they've gotten interested calls from Brytain and Cathay, too.

"We'd like to make a formal offer to extend your mandate," says the GSAS Director. "Make this a three-year project instead of two. We're not talking a permanent research outpost yet, but depending on the kind of results you get...if that becomes something you're interested in, the option isn't off the table."

The second A/M/O Physics head nods. "It sounds like you're in the best place on Earth to really test this thing," she says. "With the exception of Svalbard — but there are plenty of research teams in Svalbard already."

"You would have to re-apply for our grants, of course," says the grant manager from the Lyall & Cole Foundation. They're long-time supporters of Rusakov research — they gave Dr. Belacqua her first scholarship — and have never been intimidated by the Magisterium. "But, just between you and me? I think you have this one locked down."

"I gotta tell you folks, we were seriously considering putting the axe on this project when it got someone killed," adds the senior publicist. "You're lucky the GSAS Director leaned on us so hard to stick it out, or this day never would've come around."

One of Carlos's favorite things about doing out-of-country research is that he gets to be far, far away from inter-faculty politics. This particular director, a beefy blond Ousiconsin man with a snow bunting daemon, was always much better at navigating that kind of thing. "Thanks for the support, Dr. Feldt."

"Think nothing of it," says the GSAS Director. "I had a good feeling about this one."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

The senior publicist even talks them into letting a major news network come into town to do a report on their research.

A news van from ACN tries to visit Night Vale a few days later. Carlos spends most of the day at the chapel, taking a series of increasingly panicked calls from the field producer: "We tried to find exit 26, but we just passed exit 25 and I swear to you there's been nothing but desert since exit 27, and our GPS must be seriously malfunctioning because it seems to think we're in Australia...."

By the fifth call, Carlos talks them into retreating to Kinlání for the evening. "Physical space isn't always consistent out here — it's a side effect of the thinness between worlds that got us interested in researching Night Vale in the first place. And if you keep up like this, you're going to run out of gas and/or water, neither of which is good. Let's try to reschedule for somewhere in the city, okay?"

He waits until the woman on the other end of the call has hung up, then says, "Still on the line, officer?"

A moment of awkward silence later, a familiar voice hisses, "I think he's talking to us, Chuck!"

Oh, good. (For a certain value of "good.") "I know you guys don't like the idea of me leaving town, and I appreciate your reasoning," says Carlos. "On the other hand, apparently Night Vale doesn't like the idea of ACN coming into town. So can we work out some kind of compromise? Give me a police escort, or something?"

"I'll get a senior officer on the line right away," says the voice. "And, um, Dr. Perfecto...about that time we took you in...no hard feelings, right?"

Carlos has plenty of hard feelings, all of which he knows better than to admit to. Splaying a hand protectively over Isaña's shell, he recites, "The secret police are here for our protection."

His former interrogator sounds genuinely relieved. "Atta boy."

 

,,,^..^,,,~

 

Not long after he's sorted all that out, Carlos gets another call, this one from an unfamiliar number.

"Dr. Ramirez?" asks a shy, cracking teenage voice. "This is Intern Paolo, Night Vale Community Radio. You, um, you and Dr. Gaillard are invited to a ceremony down at the station to commemorate surviving to your one-year anniversary of arriving in Night Vale. There will be refreshments. And, uh, and trophies! You're both getting a trophy."

"Sounds...flattering," says Carlos cautiously. "Who else will be there?"

"Well, um, the station staff. Station Management probably won't decide to come out of their office, though, don't worry! Mr. Palmero will be presenting the trophies. I'll be in charge of decorations, if I'm still alive in two weeks. There's going to be a representative of the Mayor's office, if she reappears in time to send one. Your other team members are invited, although obviously they're not getting trophies...and Old Woman Josie is invited, because I think it's bad luck if you don't invite her to things."

"I see. Does the radio station always host one-year celebrations like this?"

"I don't know," says Paolo. "I don't think we've ever had an Outsider last a whole year before. It was Mr. Palmero's idea, so either it's an old tradition he knows about, or it's just something he made up. If you want, I, uh, I could go ask?"

"No, that's okay." Carlos's hand is not shaking. It's not. "Just tell him — we'll be there. Or, no, I don't know about Henriette, she'll have to check her schedule and call you back. But I won't. I mean, I won't have to check. I will be there. Tell him I'll be there."

Chapter Text

Henriette and Köhler return around dinnertime, having done a round of electrum-spyglass observations of Point G: the former site of Jorge's Tacos, now a nine-meter-high black monolith run by spectres. Turns out it affects Rusakov particles the same way the dog park does. There's a forty-foot radius around the edge where no Dust flows and all the plants have died.

"We already called Josie," reports Henriette. "Erika says she doesn't think it's expanding, or that this is some kind of phenomenon where the dog park is...dropping seeds of itself in other places around town. But he's happy to double-check."

"Let's just pray he's right," says Carlos. "By the way, the news crew couldn't make it, so I'm driving into Kinlání tomorrow to see them there. We'll have room in the car for one more — are you still sure you don't want to be involved?"

Henriette snorts. "Remember when you were trying to convince me to delegate a painful ordeal? This is me, delegating."

 

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Carlos spends the evening on a long-distance call. It's not cheap, but his mother refuses to learn how to use Skype.

"Carlos, tesoro mío, the news has been calling!" exclaims Mamá. "We told them again and again, no interviews, but now that you've invented something, they are all coming back!"

"You can do an interview if you want, Mamá," says Carlos, stretching out on his bed and scratching behind Isaña's ears as she sits on the pillow next to his head.

"Oh no. I know how these programs work. They cut up all your words until you say whatever fits the story they already want to tell — and such hatchet jobs they did on you, after Christmas! People who never met you, who know nothing about you, would come on to say you had created a hoax with los angelos, that you had this or that intention to harm people of faith...Ah, quirquinchito, every day I am thankful that you are off in your strange little town. No matter what other dangers there are, the people know you too well to be taken in by such stories."

Carlos grimaces, and only partly because he finds lil' armadillo to be a particularly embarrassing pet name. "I actually just agreed to be in a piece for ACN," he confesses. "Although one of the Harvard publicists helped work out some terms and conditions beforehand, so hopefully it won't go too badly."

"Of course it won't! You will knock their socks off, my brilliant cielito," says Mamá without missing a beat. "But enough about your work. I never understand your work anyway, it's like a whole other language. What else are you doing in your life?"

"Not a lot," says Carlos sheepishly. "Self-defense classes...board game nights with friends...the one-year anniversary of the Night Vale project is coming up in a couple weeks, so we're having a little party for that."

"Wonderful, wonderful. So, among these friends...are any of them perhaps...handsome young men?"

Carlos opens his mouth to repeat his standard answer — and his voice catches. Given how supportive Mamá had already been from the moment he came out, he hadn't expected to get such a rush of warmth just from having her fish for information about his love life with the right pronouns.

His mother, of course, interprets his silence as something completely different. "They are! And when were you going to tell your family about this? You could at least say something on the Facebook! Who is he? What —"

"It's not that!" cries Carlos. "I'm not seeing anyone, really, I just...it was nice of you to ask."

"Oh, mi cariño," sighs Mamá. "Your Papi and I don't want to see you alone."

"I do have friends, Mamá. And my colleagues...we live together, we look out for each other, they're like family." Granted, there are only four colleagues with him at the moment and two of those don't experience empathy, but he doesn't have to say that part out loud.

"And not one of these friends is a nice homosexual man who can see how handsome you are?" demands his mother. "What about the one who sent you that present, the radio man? He isn't much too old like your friend Josie, is he?"

"He's close to my age," says Carlos. "And yes, he's nice, and thinks I'm attractive, and we're friends...sort of...it's just...it's complicated, okay?"

"Ohhhh?"

With a sigh, Carlos slings an arm over his face. Isaña scoots across the pillow to lean against him. "I guess the short version is that he listens to his mother too much."

"And what's wrong with that? A boy should listen to his mamá."

"Yeah, but in this case his mamá said something...less than flattering...about me."

That turns Mamá around in a hurry. "She did? The nerve! Why, if I ever happen to visit you, I will stop by and give that woman a piece of my mind."

 

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"Well, off to do some viewings of the house that doesn't exist," says Henriette briskly, packing herself a spyglass. "All our other data suggest it's a different beast from the place we don't think about, so hopefully the live views will bear that out."

"If it looks safe enough, will one of you finally go knock on the door?" asks Carlos.

"Let's not get crazy now."

His colleagues wish him good luck the his interview, and he and Isaña head off alone to rendezvous with their plainclothes secret-police escorts for the day. (As far as ACN knows, they'll be identified as personal security, which seems like the least incriminating cover story all around.)

The escorts turn out to be Terrell Flynn, a stocky dark-eyed man with a ring-tailed lemur daemon, who Carlos recognizes from PTA meetings; and Germaine Donaldson, an ambiguously-gendered sibling of Frances Donaldson, whose daemon is also a tree frog (this one green). The latter takes the wheel. Both are all business when they first get in the car, but Carlos asks Terrell how his children are doing, and Germaine if they've gotten anything interesting in the antiques mall lately, and within the first hour of the drive they've all unwound.

Carlos had been planning to do some last-minute interview prep during this ride. Most of that time gets sucked away looking at the kid pictures on Terrell's phone.

At last they reach the Hispania Nova Naval Observatory in Kinlání, where the director kindly agreed to let ACN film on the grounds. Outside of Night Vale itself, there's no more appropriate place to do a piece like this. It's the closest research outpost that does the same kind of pushing the limits of the observable universe.

"Now, remember," say